After former National Football League player Jimmie Bell visited Oakview Elementary School in Muskegon Tuesday afternoon and encouraged students to pursue their dreams, no matter how many barriers may stand in their way, the children immediately launched into their plans for the future.
“I want to be a softball star,” said Audrey Hinton, a fourth grade student.
“I want to play basketball for the Warriors,” said Lamar Bradford, who’s in fifth grade.
“I want to be a doctor because I want to help people,” said sixth grader Amariya Hussey-Walker. “When I see people who are hurt, who are homeless, I want to help them.”
There was talk of believing in yourself, of going to college, of fighting for a kinder world—one where children feel empowered to “stand up for themselves, even though it’s hard,” Hussey-Walker said.
“Even if you don’t think you’re doing a good job, there are still people looking up to you and saying, ‘you’re doing good,’” the student added.
These enthusiastic, thoughtful responses that focused on believing in themselves and loving the world, and people, around them were exactly what Bell and Oakview Elementary Principal LaKisha Loudermill hoped would follow the football star’s talk.
“I want the kids to recognize the power within themselves,” said Bell, who began his professional football career in 1999 as a defensive lineman with the New York Giants before moving to the San Diego Chargers.
Now a motivational speaker with Sports World, an organization that sends professional athletes to speak at schools across the country, Bell and fellow former professional football player Lee Rouson held about 16 events throughout Muskegon this week, including Bell giving talks at Oakview and Lakeside Elementary and Rouson speaking at Muskegon High School.
“I understand my platform as an African-American graduate from a major university and a professional athlete; people listen to me,” said Bell, who also played football at Ohio State University. “I never take that for granted.”
For Oakview students, the majority of whom are on free and reduced lunch and some of whom are facing, or have dealt with, trauma, Bell’s message resonated deeply.
“I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio—Youngstown, Ohio is known as one of the rougher places to grow up,” Bell told the students.
Despite the difficulties life brought his way, Bell told the hundreds of children gathered to hear him speak that he persevered and tried to never lose sight of his goals.
“Fight for your dream; make those positive choices and decisions that will move you closer to that dream,” he said. “I need you to understand how I’m able to fight for my dream and take responsibility for my legacy. Find something you can focus on in your life, that you can fight for when things aren’t going the way you want them to, when you’re tired and exhausted from obstacles and hurdles, when maybe you don’t know if it’s worth it to move on. Find something so big that you can focus on it.”
For Oakview’s principal, this is the message she said she and her staff are consistently emphasizing with their students.
“Our students experience a number of challenges; they still have great potential,” Loudermill said. “They just need a cheerleader, someone who says, ‘You can do it; I’m here for you.’”
“Our kids are passionate; they have the potential to be superstars,” she continued.
Jyzel Todd, a third grade student, said she loved Bell’s message.
“Even though you don’t feel that confident, everything’s going to be OK,” Todd said, explaining what she took away from the talk. “You should be confident because you have a lot of things to look forward to.”
Alayah Longmire, who’s in fourth grade, emphasized the importance of perseverance while addressing her impressions of Bell’s speech.
“You have to strive for what you believe in and not give up on yourself,” she said. “I don’t give up. I keep going even when there’s a hard time.”
In addition to the principal, faculty and inspirational guest speakers championing the students, Loudermill emphasized Oakview pupils, and children throughout the Muskegon Public Schools system, would greatly benefit from additional funding from the state. With Gov. Gretchen Whitmer saying she plans to increase funding for education in her upcoming budget, which is slated to be released March 5, Loudermill said she hopes that translates to greater financial backing for schools like Oakview.
“I would like to see an increase of support with programming for students and families experiencing trauma,” Loudermill said.