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Crusaders performing on and off the field

When it comes to putting his football players to work, St. Mary’s head coach Jamie Young is all for it.

The Crusaders work hard on the field during practice and games, but Young’s approach involves more than just X’s and O’s. In his fifth year at St. Mary’s, a key component in his coaching philosophy involves building character on and off the field.

“I always try to get our guys involved in something community service-wise,” Young said Monday. “Community service is a big part of graduating from St. Mary’s and I’ve always made it known over the few years I’ve been here that if you have any community service needs, let me know. As a football team that’s what we talk about all the time, being selfless, so I volunteer my guys a lot.”

St. Mary’s High requires that its students complete a minimum of 100 hours of meaningful service to the greater community, and the school developed a mentorship program with Kids Unlimited last year that involves more than 75 of its teenagers.

The most recent venture for the Crusaders football team is an ongoing one, and definitely more formal than the typical projects that have involved Young’s players. Every Monday, all 30 players — along with a handful of other St. Mary’s students — get on a bus during their lunch time and spend an hour reading to kindergarten students at the VIBES Charter School at Kids Unlimited.

It’s an idea brought to Young’s attention by fellow St. Mary’s High teacher Anne Adderson, and one he quickly pounced on to make mandatory for his players this season.

“When we finished two-a-days was when I presented it to the team and said, ‘Guys, this is what we’re doing as a team and we need to walk the talk of being selfless,’ and everyone was excited about it,” said Young, whose team is 3-2 and next hosts University Prep of California at 7 p.m. Saturday at Spiegelberg Stadium.

“It’s been a really positive program so far and the parents and players really seem to enjoy it,” he added.

That seems to be an understatement, as St. Mary’s senior captains Riley O’Sullivan and Denten Edwards are quick to attest to the benefits of being SMART readers for the second-year charter school.

“Our coach always stresses the importance of having a good character on and off the field,” said O’Sullivan, “and I think this program really captures what we’re trying to do as a program and as a team.”

Added Edwards: “I was pretty excited for it because it’s worthwhile for everyone. If you’re going to take part in something in terms of community service, this is a great way to spend your time.”

The football players were trained in SMART reading fundamentals, and Monday was their third lunch time spent with the kindergartners. VIBES Charter School has two kindergarten classes totaling 50 students, and Edwards said the football players get a folder for each of their two students per Monday and spend about 20 minutes together.

It’s more than just reading to the students or helping them learn to read. According to Kids Unlimited Executive Director Tom Cole, that time is invaluable for all it entails.

“It’s a really cool thing they’re doing, not only because it’s a sports team but just that a group of high school kids would collectively embrace needs of kids who are less fortunate,” said Cole. “This year bringing the football team in has added a whole different dynamic. The kids look forward to it and the guys show up in their uniforms and, for these kindergarten kids who are so easily impressed, seeing these big football kids coming in and giving them their time … it’s just an incredible resource for us.”

The impact goes both ways, according to Edwards and O’Sullivan.

“It’s really fun for us to be able to go over there and kind of be a role model to all the other kids,” said Edwards, who is a 6-foot, 185-pound quarterback/linebacker. “A lot of them maybe don’t have somebody in their lives to look up to, so it’s fun for us and it’s really good for them.”

O’Sullivan is in his second year of the mentorship program with Kids Unlimited and has a second-grade student he’s worked with since last year. Beyond the lunch time reading program, he spends at least an hour per week going through his partner’s classes and they discuss things like participating in class more and being a good person, as well as the basics of math, science and so on.

“We grow ourselves,” O’Sullivan, a 6-0, 195-pound offensive lineman/linebacker, said of the volunteerism. “As much as they learn from us, we learn from them. It’s good to be patient and participate with other people, and you learn a little bit how to act better when you’re on the field. It’s just been a great experience and it’s really helped us. I hope we’re making a difference there as well.”

The impact the St. Mary’s students have had, be it football players or otherwise, has definitely been felt throughout the charter school, said Cole.

“The issue we have — and it’s a good problem to have — is that every kid wants a mentor because they know the mentors join them in class or in an enrichment program,” said Cole, whose K-4 school has 250 students. “Other kids who don’t have a mentor are trying to figure out how to get one because they see how fun and beneficial it can be to have those mentors around. The demand for those kids is great, and we really couldn’t be happier with the relationships we’ve developed through these kids at St. Mary’s.”

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry