Value Of Classroom Champions Mentorship Works Both Ways For Lex Gillette

by Karen Price

Lex Gillette competes in long jump in 2019 in Lima, Peru. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)

Lex Gillette has won medals at four different Paralympic Games and is a four-time world champion in the long jump, but the track isn’t the only place where he gets that winning feeling.

Gillette has been a mentor with Classroom Champions since 2014, and when he knows that a student has really caught on to goal setting, perseverance, teamwork or one of the other themes the program teaches, it means the world.

“That’s like winning the gold medal,” Gillette said. “You know you’ve impacted someone’s life and, in a lot of ways, impacted the community because the hope is that the kids take those things as they grow up and will be able to change the landscape of those environments where they’re going to live and change those communities and culture.”

Olympic bobsledder Steve Mesler and his sister, Dr. Leigh Parise, founded Classroom Champions in 2009 as a way to pair athletes with underserved students in classrooms all over the country in a virtual setting. To date, more than 200 Olympic, Paralympic, college and professional athletes have mentored students in more than 1,800 classrooms teaching important social and emotional skills such as leadership, community involvement and managing emotions.

Gillette, who is blind, wanted to get involved with the nonprofit primarily because of how important it was to have guidance, advice and information when he faced the challenge of losing his sight at 8 years old. The lessons he learned then developed characteristics and skills that he’s used to be successful in life, and he knew the curriculum Classroom Champions teaches could help other children learn the same skills.

Gillette mentors a number of classrooms throughout the year, from kindergarten through eighth grade. Most, he said, have been third through fifth graders. Each month they focus on a different topic, and the mentors will start by sharing a video that introduces the topic then personalize it by sharing something related about their own lives. Then, they’ll issue a challenge to the students.

Gillette’s favorite theme is perseverance, which is taught in January.

“I just talk to the kids about tapping into your inner strength and that life will always present challenges and obstacles, but you have to realize you have what it takes to push through those things,” he said. “Given what I’ve had to deal with in life, it makes sense.”

One of the challenges he likes to present is asking the students to choose a notable figure from history and then tell him about an obstacle that person faced and how he or she persevered and overcame it.

“It could be a written essay, or I even had one class in Phoenix that created a podcast,” he said. “So in their minds’ eye they were like, ‘He’s blind, so let’s make a podcast and we can talk to him about the challenge.’ It’s cool because I train Monday through Friday and when I wake up in the morning I can press play on the podcast and the kids talk about how Martin Luther King, Jr. did this or Amelia Earhart did that. It’s a learning experience for all of us.”

That Phoenix classroom belongs to Ella Maya, who’s been teaching for 19 years and using Classroom Champions for seven. Gillette is mentor to her class of sixth graders this year, and he was also her classroom’s mentor two years ago.

She said that even this school year, which has been all distance learning so far, she sees evidence of the students using the lessons learned through Classroom Champions.

“Without asking, one kid was like, ‘My reading level went up so I have to change my goal,’ and another kid wanted to change his goal because he realized he wasn’t doing it right,’” she said. “They’re going back and finding their center, which was one of the lessons last semester. It’s powerful because distance learning can be so stressful and frustrating when things aren’t working right, and with everything from the election to Black Lives Matter we can use what we learned from Lex to handle our emotions and identify our emotions and talk about them. It’s constant with revisiting whatever it is we’ve learned so far.”

Gillette has each child say his or her name when they send videos so that he gets to know their voices over the months. That way, when they do their live chats, he can recognize who’s speaking and it makes it more personal when he can call them by name. That’s just one of the things that makes him such a good mentor, Maya said.

“He has this innate way of making an instant connection with the kids,” she said. “Before the first live chat of the year the kids will be so nervous but within two minutes, they’re raising their hands to talk and wanting to be part of it. Because of that, when they have a lesson with Lex or even a prerecorded video, they’re a captive audience. I can tell them something about reaching goals, but it can be like the Charlie Brown teacher talking. But they remember what Lex said and it’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t let down Lex.’ Even though he’s not in the classroom it’s nice to have another trusted adult and someone who believes in them. They can’t believe that here’s this Paralympian who’s achieved all these things and he’s cheering for them.”

One of the things Gillette loves about the program is that, unlike a guest speaking engagement where it’s all over in an afternoon, he gets to build a relationship with the students over the school year.

Before COVID-19, he was able to occasionally visit the classrooms in person.

One year he had a class in Philadelphia that would respond to the challenges by making up rap songs, and when he visited, they performed a concert of all the songs they’d written over the year. Another class he visited performed a play about all the lessons they’d learned.

Another time, he got the opportunity to visit classes he was mentoring in Camden, New Jersey.

“You turn on the news and Camden doesn’t seem like the best of places,” he said. “But what sticks out that day was the time we spent together, just me and first, second, fifth and sixth graders and the kids just really enjoying life. I remember us walking from school to a park that was really close and just the joy and happiness with these kids and in my head I’m like wow, people dog this city’s name, and I don’t want to be oblivious because I know there are things to back up those claims, but the point was these kids weren’t thinking about that. We were just having a good time. I was swinging, and I hadn’t been on the swings in years but these 7- and 8-year-olds were trying to push me on the swing saying, ‘Come on Lex!’ It was a good time. You spend so much time with them throughout the year it’s like wow, these are my kiddos. I really care about them and want to make sure they get the best out of life.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.