Donovan Wirt, UofSC senior football player, smiles for a picture with students he mentors at W.G. Sanders Middle School.

Some Midlands area middle school students have been receiving some life lessons from University of South Carolina athletes following the creation of a student mentoring program.

South Carolina red shirt junior  defensive back Jaylin Dickerson started the program in the summer of 2019, involving other student athletes, and W.G. Sanders Middle School in the Richland 1 school district welcomed the initiative.

The program now includes 16 student-athletes from six sports who serve as mentors at Sanders. Members of the athletics faculty help with the students as well.

At W.G. Sanders, 21 middle school students spend time each week with student-athlete mentors, and the numbers are continuing to increase.

Dickerson said his childhood experiences led him to set up a mentoring program for the students.

“Growing up where I was born it was hard,” Dickerson said. “No one was in our heads and our ears telling us to go further. We were trapped in a box where we couldn’t do anything, and we couldn’t excel.”

The mentors spend an hour of their week at W.G. Sanders throughout the semester. Some of the athletes have one-on-one talks with the children, asking about their experiences and offering advice when needed. Others play games with them or go to the library to help with reading and allow the students to relax and have fun.

Dickerson said his goal is to inspire each child he mentors to reach their full potential.

“I hope that I can go tell any child that they can go as far as they want to in life,” Dickerson said. “I feel that they can take that and reach any level they want to and go a long way.”

Donovan Wirt, a senior and another member of South Carolina’s football team, shared the importance of being a mentor.

“It’s amazing that our school has partnered with this school to lead these kids to a better lifestyle and give them something that they don’t really have at home – just to be a positive role model in their life because it’s kind of easy to go down the wrong path, especially early on,” Wirt said

Wirt said students at the school have benefited from the athletes’ mentoring.

“They are young, but they are a lot more mature,” Wirt said. “They take their grades a lot more seriously now, and they are a lot more punctual to class.”

Caroline Neil, assistant director of student-athlete development at the University of South Carolina, helped Dickerson put the pieces together for the initiative.

“He realized he wanted to make an impact on other people and help them through their trials because he has experienced so much in his life, and so he just wanted to help others through theirs,” Neil said. “It’s beautiful. When he came up with the idea, we just started calling middle schools, trying to identify which ones needed help.”

W.G. Sanders was identified as one of these schools and welcomed the assistance. Robert Harris, career magnet lead teacher at the school, said that mentors are important for the area.

“In Columbia, we do have a huge low socioeconomic status among our students,” Harris said. “More importantly, we have a population of students who are in need of mentors.”

Harris has seen how popular the program has become and that it is continuing to develop.

“Over the next year I see tremendous growth, and I see more student-athletes getting involved,” Harris said. “We have a ton of students who have now seen our mentors on campus interacting with their peers. Now everybody is saying ‘I want a mentor; I want a mentor’.”

UofSC senior swimmer, Hannah Gerlock, also a mentor, said she  has been the one benefiting from the program.

“The kids teach you as much as you hope to teach them and it’s super cool just to see the impacts they are having,” Gerlock said. “My mentee, she’s awesome, and just talking about the way she is leading and growing and the ways she’s loving those around her really inspires me.”

The mentoring program has convinced many of the student-athletes to continue helping the community after graduation. This is evident with Dickerson and his hunger to give more.

“I want to start my own mentoring program at some point,” Dickerson said. “These kids have started something for me and the future. I plan on making it grow to the furthest extent and keep on going because I want to do what is best for the children.”

UofSC football defensive back Jaylin Dickerson, right, takes a picture with one of the students he mentors.

 USC senior football player Donovan Wirt, second from right, with his middle school students he mentors at W.G. Sanders.

As part of the mentoring program, W.G. Sanders students were invited to a UofSC women’s basketball game at the university.