When alpine ski racer Andrew Kurka won the gold and silver medals at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, a group of U.S. students half a world away were among his loudest fans, urging parents to let them stay up so they could “watch Andrew race on the TV.”
It wasn’t just because Kurka is a famous Olympic athlete or because he hails from Alaska, their home state, it’s because of the students’ personal relationship with Kurka. For an entire school year he had been a mentor in their classroom, working virtually alongside the teacher and engaging with students on a personal level.
“The most letters and the most congratulations that I’ve ever gotten were from my classroom, and were from my champions,” Kurka said. The champions, as he calls the elementary school students he works with, are part of a program called Classroom Champions that pairs Olympians, Paralympians, student-athletes and professional athletes with students and teachers in high-poverty schools in the U.S. and Canada. At the heart of the program is its SEL-based curriculum and mentorship experience.