UMD student-athletes enjoy the gift of giving

Laura MacArthur Elementary School students weren't told on Tuesday where they were going, just to bring their snowpants.But they knew something up was up when the two school buses they were riding in pulled up to the Heritage Center and Champ, Mi...

Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey player Jalyn Elmes helps Ayla Reilly, 6, ice skate for her first time at Duluth Heritage Sports Center on Tuesday. Bulldog athletes and the Laura MacArthur Elementary School K.E.Y. Zone program threw the surprise “Skate with the Dogs” Christmas event for approximately 80 children. (Photos by Steve Kuchera /

Laura MacArthur Elementary School students weren’t told on Tuesday where they were going, just to bring their snowpants.
But they knew something up was up when the two school buses they were riding in pulled up to the Heritage Center and Champ, Minnesota Duluth’s bulldog mascot, stormed the buses.
“We screamed at him because he scared us,” third-grader Hunter laughed.
It didn’t take the schoolchildren long to figure out it was going to be a special day as they followed Champ through a sea of UMD student-athletes and into Seitz Arena. There, in the hallway, they found skates waiting for them as they took part in a free skate with Bulldogs athletes, whom they’ve worked with after school all fall.
“I was surprised, but once we got here, I knew we were going ice skating,” fourth-grader Derrick said.
It was a little rock star treatment for participating in K.E.Y. Zone, a partnership between Duluth Public Schools and the YMCA, standing for Knowledge, Enrichment and Youth Development.
Annmarie Ulvestad is the site coordinator at Laura MacArthur.
“I saw a need for more positive role models in their lives,” Ulvestad said. “These athletes voluntarily come on their own. They just love it. The positive relationship that has come from this is unreal.”
The district identifies students who could benefit academically and socially from K.E.Y. Zone, but the afterschool program is open to all students.
Jay Roesler, the director of community education for the district, said participation in the program has grown every year and more than doubled in its five years, from about 600 to 1,400 students. While the district has nine elementary schools taking part in K.E.Y. Zone, clearly, as evidenced on Tuesday, Ulvestad and Co. have something special going on with UMD.
“I can’t believe how many people are here. Very impressive,” Roesler said, surveying UMD athletes from all sports skating with the kids. “It’s about developing relationships with peers and adults through these kinds of experiences. You’ve got to make connections. All Annmarie really did was contact UMD and Karen Stromme, and away we go.”
Stromme, a Duluth native, is UMD’s associate athletic director and senior woman administrator.
UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said Ulvestad contacted the right person.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to give back, and what better way than this?” Berlo said. “This is great.”
UMD has partnered with Laura MacArthur the past two years. Last year’s special event was dubbed “Family Night, ” with children singing Christmas songs and UMD athletes surprising them with presents based off their wish lists.
This year’s event, “Skate with the Dogs,” certainly had a bit of a hockey theme, with about half the UMD men’s hockey team and most of the women’s team in attendance.
After the free skate, the children and their parents moved next door to Clyde Iron Works for pizza, bananas, chips and cake in the large back room that can host concerts. The time, space and food was donated by the Heritage Center, Clyde Iron, Super One, Kwik Trip and Sam’s Club.
While everyone settled in, Santa Claus led a procession of athletes across the balcony above before they made their way to main floor, where they handed out special UMD sweatpants to the students, one at a time, designed and paid for by the UMD Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
Stromme got the children worked up before Santa arrived.
“It’s heartwarming,” Stromme said. “I don’t know how we can top this. Annmarie is amazing.”
An estimated 340 people attended - 190 students and parents and 150 UMD student-athletes. Some of the Bulldogs worked with the students after school on a weekly basis this fall while others had done so in the past or were looking to do so this spring, depending on their schedules.
Women’s soccer goalie Sisley Ng volunteered once a week this fall and got to know first-grader Aiden. Ng said the student-athletes serve as role models, but the benefits go both ways.
“I love the kids,” Ng said. “They’re excited to see you. They’re fun to be around, and it makes me feel good if I can help them. I’d volunteer more if I can.”
While K.E.Y. Zone includes “brain time,” academic enrichment where students might work on their homework, it’s a laid-back setting featuring such things as basketball club or cooking club.
According to survey numbers from the district, 73 percent of students improved their academic performance through K.E.Y. Zone, 89 percent of parents were satisfied with the program and 95 percent of students said the afterschool staff provided help when they needed it most.
It doesn’t take a numbers cruncher to figure out the effect at Laura MacArthur. One look at the ice sheet at Seitz Arena could tell you that, with students looking up to mentors, and smiles to go around.
UMD women’s hockey forward Sydney Brodt worked this fall with Derrick, the chatty fourth-grader mentioned earlier. Derrick was skating for the second time Tuesday.
“I want to be a skater, like you!” Derrick said to Brodt.
Hunter, meanwhile, was with men’s hockey forward Karson Kuhlman of Esko. Kuhlman is in his first year volunteering at Laura MacArthur. While he helped Hunter with his math, they made plenty of time for dodgeball.
It was Hunter’s fourth or fifth time skating but it was hard to tell, given how many times he fell. He said soccer is his favorite sport, followed by football and hockey.
Is hockey moving up?
“No,” he said.
“It takes time,” Kuhlman said, laughing.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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