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USC Aiken Men’s Basketball giving big assist off court to mentor, encourage district at-risk students

During a University of South Carolina at Aiken home victory this season over Chowan University, the senior men’s basketball duo of Paris Ballinger and Markus Terry combined for 23 points, five assists, three rebounds and two steals in helping lead the Pacers to victory.

Yet their biggest contributions of the season may have come off the basketball court.

On any given weekday afternoon just a few miles away, Ballinger, Terry and a number of their Pacers teammates volunteer their time to help mentor and encourage at-risk students at Aiken County Public Schools’ Center for Innovative Learning (CIL). The partnership, which began last season with set visitation times and a required number of hours for the players, has blossomed. Terry, Ballinger and the Pacers are more than mentors and volunteers now to the school’s administration, teachers and students – they are a part of the CIL family.

“I worked at the Boys and Girls Club back in St. Louis helping to mentor kids, and it’s been really nice here over the last year working with these kids. They look up to us and they are shy sometimes when we come around, but we really enjoy it and it is something we look forward to every week,” stated Ballinger. “The program is set up for us to visit every other week, but myself and several others stop by a lot more than that. The students can relate to us because we are young and we play basketball, but we want to talk with the kids about being positive and making good decisions. I did not have a lot growing up and a lot of them do not really have a lot either, so I just want to help them stay on the right path.”

USC Aiken Men’s Basketball Coach Mark Vanderslice said the partnership encourages longer relationships between his players and the students that will benefit both individuals.

“We wanted to put our guys in a position where they would be visible here at CIL from a long-term standpoint, the entire school year,” Vanderslice commented. “They visit students in pairs every week. They are able to help the students here, but this also helps our players as well. I have told my players that we want to help make others better – that is our motto – and we want to make sure that continues.”

Senior guard Markus Terry said he has thoroughly enjoyed his involvement in the program.

“I love it here at CIL. It has really been a great experience. I know there were people who gave their time to me when I was little, so I just want to give some of that back. I just want to provide a positive outlook for these kids because they may not have that elsewhere, and I want to be a good role model,” Terry stated. “We have developed great relationships with many of the students here and many of them are no longer here. I feel like me being a good example for them while they are here can help them change their behavior and circumstances outside of the school and when they leave, so I just want to give back as much as I can.”

Mark Dugar, who serves as building principal at the Center for Innovative Learning, says the positive affect the USC Aiken players have had on students at the school is undeniable.

“Our counseling department spearheaded the effort to bring the USC Aiken players here, and once they started coming and mentoring the students it just seemed to really uplift those kids,” Dugar commented. “The players talk to the students about life, education, and being productive within their community. They also help them with their schoolwork. I think it is huge. It helps our students, but it also helps the players because I have been that college athlete and had the opportunity to speak to kids and it makes you feel good.”

Recently retired Counselor Cindy Keating says the Pacers have been a tremendous source of positive energy and encouragement for the students and the entire campus.

“These young men continue to do a phenomenal job as they interact with students and show them how to rise above all of the chaotic noise and nonsense from the outside world that have placed them in an alternative school setting. The USCA basketball team supports CIL students by handling each of them with grace, dignity, and compassion, which all deserve,” Keating stated.

“As an incentive after each lesson, they take students out on the basketball court and shoot hoops. They bring true joy and hope to students’ lives. The students get so excited when they see their mentor walk through the door. This positive response and interaction has changed the climate of the school. The mentees want to show the players each week how their behavior and academics have improved.”

Dugar said the work of the USC Aiken players also serves as a pleasant reminder of the roles college student-athletes can play in the lives of students who need encouragement.

“I come from a family that did not have a whole lot. They were not able to send me to college, but through hard work and with the help of some great coaches at Aiken High School who talked to me about the opportunities I had before me, I was able to play college football and have my education paid for,” Dugar recalled. “Later on, I was able to share my story with kids just like the USC Aiken players are doing here. Desire, discipline and dedication will take you a long way in life. That is the message these players are sharing with our students, and they have just been a blessing. One conversation can make a big difference in a kid’s life and even turn their life around, and that is what we want. We want our students to get a high-quality education and we want them to become productive citizens in our community.”

Keating says the relationship with the basketball team has been a symbiotic one.

“These young men have a passion for helping others, and they lead by example and listen with their hearts. Our teachers and staff members access local resources such as free tutoring services and help the guys navigate through the aspects of living far away from family members, offer help with financial planning, refer them to various businesses for employment and basically serve as role models and mentors for the players,” Keating stated.

Both the CIL students and staff, and the USCA men’s basketball team, also benefit from a strong supporting cast of dedicated community volunteers.

“We are all one family working together, being supported by generous folks in our community such as Kevin Pethick, Robert Glance, Mark Melton, and other volunteers,” Keating commented. “This program has been a tremendous success and will continue to grow each year.”

Paris Ballinger is a senior at USC Aiken and looking forward to graduation, but in addition to the talks he has enjoyed with students and the changes he has witnessed in many of them, he says he will never forget the first time he shared the court with the youngest kids at CIL.

“The first time I was able to play ball with the little kids here was just special. I remember being a little kid myself, running around and playing ball with my older cousins who played college sports because I was there at a young age at one time,” Ballinger added. “Now it has come full circle so it’s all about giving back to them.”