Dream Runners program
Dream Runners program
UTSA Dream Runners, Rowdy Roadrunner and friends
(Photos by Greg Ruder).

Dream Runners: higher ed, athletics go to kids

By Greg Ruder
Student Assistant, Department of Intercollegiate Athletics

(May 5, 2009)--The UTSA Dream Runners program visited Villareal Elementary School April 27 for a TAKS test pep rally. Seniors Travis Gabbidon (basketball) and Gaston Griffin (track and field), Mascot Rowdy and UTSA cheerleaders were on hand to energize the pep rally and share their thoughts on academic preparation for college.

"Growing up in this city, I didn't get a chance to see the UTSA athletes come out and talk to my school," said Griffin, a graduate of San Antonio's Clark High School. "I really enjoy this opportunity to give back to the community I grew up in. Every chance I get, I want to come. It makes their dream of being a college athlete more attainable when they see a guy who grew up in San Antonio who went on to become an athlete at UTSA."

"You'd be amazed at how much love these kids show you just for coming out," he added. "They don't know I run track. They don't know what event I run or how fast I am. Just the fact that I came out here to share some of my experiences with them... they like that."

The hour-long program started with faculty and staff cheering on the children in preparation for their TAKS tests. Chants of "Start strong, stay strong, finish strong," the school's motto, echoed throughout the gymnasium. To raise the level of intensity, their school mascot, Jag the Jaguar, came out to award their spirit stick to the loudest class.

The last half of the pep rally was handed over to the Dream Runners program. Manuel Maldonado III, program manager, addressed the students first, reinforcing the hard work and preparation the students have put in all year and encouraging them to perform well on the upcoming test.

"As an educator and a coach, there is no greater satisfaction than watching these kids succeed after all of the dedication they have shown all year," Maldonado said. "I am a first-generation college graduate, and a lot of these kids will be the first in their families to go on and get a higher education. For me to be able to give back to these children and stress the importance of getting that degree, well, let's just say I love my job."

Dream Runners was started as a pilot in 2005 with just two schools. Villareal Elementary came aboard in 2006, and the program has since expanded to nearly 30 schools in six San Antonio school districts.

"We're extremely appreciative of Mr. Maldonado and the Dream Runners program," Villareal Elementary School principal Brenda Gallardo said. "He has given our students so many opportunities through this program. It has been a great experience for the children."

Villareal is one of the most active schools in the program. As part of the program, they have placed "Dream Boards" in the classrooms where the students can write down their dreams, their favorite schools and anything else related to college. The teachers engage the students about their dreams and about going to college.

"It's important for us to create that vision for the children and show them that it is attainable," Gallardo said. "A lot of times there are other factors that affect their ability to go to college. We control what they do here at school and this is something that we can offer to our students."

The UTSA Office of P-20 Initiatives and the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics created the Dream Runners program. The program targets students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in grades 5-8 and focuses on the academic achievement and attendance of students through the engagement of extracurricular activities at the UTSA campuses.

The program offers "College Student for a Day," where the children are brought to campus and attend mock classes taught by volunteer students from several UTSA academic departments. The children take notes and have quizzes at the end of class. Children also are invited to attend athletics events such as volleyball matches, men's and women's basketball games, and baseball and softball games. The goal is to introduce the children to some of the many different aspects of college life. The program has been an overwhelming success to date, reaching out to more than 5,000 area youth.

"I have friends from other universities inside and outside of Texas calling me wanting to expand our program through their institutions," said Maldonado. "We have several ideas about ways we can enhance this experience for the children and also ideas on how we can expand to reach more students outside the city of San Antonio."

"This is such a rewarding experience for me," Maldonado added. "The other day I took my daughter to Peter Piper Pizza for a birthday party. We were there awhile, and I noticed this little guy following me around. I finally stopped and asked him if I could help him with something and he said, 'You're Mr. M from UTSA! I was in the Dream Runners in the 5th grade, but my middle school isn't in the program. I used to get bad grades before I was in the program, but now I get As and Bs because I want to go to UTSA and be a Roadrunner like you.' How can you beat that?"

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