The United States Army is known for coming to the aid of people in need all around the world. At Illinois State University, a small group of soldiers-in-training saw a need—albeit on a much smaller scale than the military is accustomed to—in a local classroom and answered the call.
Illinois State students involved in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, more commonly known as ROTC, are members of the University’s Redbird Battalion. The group consists of about 120 cadets, who are preparing to become military leaders. Once their training and degrees are successfully completed, they will begin active duty service to the nation as newly commissioned officers.
More than a dozen Redbird Battalion members donate their time at Unit 5’s Fox Creek Elementary in southwest Bloomington through a program called Cadets Helping Kids. The college students work mostly with first graders, tutoring them in reading, math, or any subject where they might need help.
It’s part of what’s called selfless service, one of the seven core values of the United States Army along with loyalty, duty, respect, personal courage, honor, and integrity.
“Selfless service is putting the needs of others before your own,” said Lt. Col. John Cross, chair of Illinois State’s Department of Military Science. “And then there’s the intrinsic reward of having been involved in something that makes you say, ‘Hey, that was really cool.’”
The department created the Cadets Helping Kids program over a decade ago to ensure that selfless service was part of the ROTC experience. Between five and 15 cadets volunteer every year for the program. In addition to helping out with schoolwork, cadets simply visit with the children and get to know them better.
“It also teaches our cadets to be a role model, to be a good example, to help kids with their studies, and show them the importance of studying hard,” Cross said.
Cadets Helping Kids began at El Paso Elementary, about 20 miles north of Normal, where a cadet’s mother was a teacher there at the time. After she retired, the program moved to Fox Creek Elementary. Once a week during the school day, usually on Fridays, cadets put on their uniforms, hop in a van, and travel as a group to visit a couple of first grade classrooms at the school.
The cadets have diverse academic pursuits, coming from over 40 different majors, studying everything from the hard sciences to elementary education. The ROTC is increasingly diverse as well; 34 percent of current cadets are female, up 6 percentage points from a year ago.
Junior Ryan Schmitz is the cadet in charge for Cadets Helping Kids. He majors in criminal justice and plans to make a career of the military. He has had more life experience than most cadets. He was trained as a welder, worked as a painting contractor, and enlisted in the National Guard at 17. It’s his second year volunteering at Fox Creek.
“It’s my first year as cadet in charge,” Schmitz, of Peoria, said. “I do the head count, time management, am the point of contact between Redbird Battalion and Fox Creek Elementary, and am the overseer figure this year.
“We are providing positive reinforcement. Good actions cause good results; negative actions cause repercussions.”
Volunteering with children is right up Kenzie Toland’s alley. The sophomore elementary education major is in her second year of tutoring. The program gives her experiences similar to what she will receive in clinicals and student teaching. She is also building relationships with children.
“We encourage them to talk about their families, and it’s nice that we get to go back to the same classes. They get super excited when they see a familiar face.”
Kelly Gerharz teaches 22 first graders at Fox Creek. The cadets are well liked in her room and are appreciated for the one-on-one attention they give the students.
Gerharz noted one aspect of the program that’s easy to overlook since the Fox Creek children are so young. Seeing college kids in a uniform makes her students think about what they want to be when they grow up.
“I think it’s important that they think about furthering their education or consider the military or trade school and then ask themselves, ‘What am I going to do?’” Gerharz said. “The ROTC kids show them what they can be.”
Cadet Sarah Madura, a junior nursing student from Champaign, is aware that as a female some of the little girls might be paying particular attention to her. During one tutoring session last fall, Madura, dressed in her green combat uniform and ROTC-issued hat and boots, escorted first graders down the hall to computer class.
“I like that they get to see women in the Army,” Madura said. “They can understand that a girl can be a soldier, and that it’s OK to be strong.”
Sophomore Evan Shook likes that the cadets’ presence seems to have a calming effect on the children. He’s noticed that even though he and his colleagues are young themselves, it’s clear—based on the reactions of the kids and the feedback from Fox Creek teachers—that they are making an impact on young lives.
Shook has gained a bit of perspective about his own path and takes his volunteer work seriously. He schedules his classes around his volunteer commitment. It has helped him appreciate the difference between his own middle-class background and the economic challenges faced by some of the children and their families.
“These kids might come from lower-income homes or broken homes, so it’s an important role we play,” said Shook, who is majoring in renewable energy. “You end the week on a good note, and it brings a smile to your face.”
The influence that cadets have on students is not lost on Kristen Hammer. She teaches first grade across the hall from Gerharz.
“These kids look up to the cadets,” Hammer said. “They look forward to seeing them all week. I use it to tell them that they need to make good choices during the week so that our friends can come visit us.
“It goes both ways. My class and the college kids are both learning about something bigger than themselves.”
Hammer loves the respect she sees her students give to the cadets. She also appreciates how the cadets have jumped right into the work. When she calls out a familiar order for everyone to “freeze like an ice cube,” the cadets recognize it as the cue to stand in place right alongside their small friends.
Hammer has other fun catchphrases that she uses, and the cadets are in on the fun. A correct answer causes Hammer to say, “Brain sparkle!” That evokes a sparkle sound: “Ssssss!” The cadets were right on time for all of it: the quick claps, the sound effects, and plenty of high-fives and knuckle touches.
The cadets feel a measure of pride in helping mold young minds at Fox Creek.
“We try to be there for them, have a positive influence on them, and show them what the Army stands for,” Shook said. “So, it’s a lot bigger than just helping kids with schoolwork.”
John Moody can be reached at jemoody2@IllinoisState.edu.