'Bates Z Kids' leaving paw prints on Lewiston Middle School

The Bates Z Kids program has groups of Bates football coaches and players visiting seventh and eighth graders at Lewiston Middle School every Friday. Shown here, Jon Lindgren and Phil Simplicio are joined by assistant coaches Garret McLaughlin, Dom Gaston, Tino Lopes, Brandon Potvin and Custavious Patterson on their way into the school. (Malik Hall)

LEWISTON, Maine -- This season has been a time of change and new beginnings for the Bates football team. First-year head coach Malik Hall, his staff and players are all working together to build who the Bobcats will become on the football field. At the same time, the program has been focused on helping those around them, too. They are also creating an off-the-field identity, and developing a plan to leave the Bobcats' "paw print" on the Lewiston community.

"We want to let the community and the neighboring schools know that we are here," said Hall. "Bates and the football team can be the bridge to the community of Lewiston, to its schools and to their students. The power of athletics is that it transcends race, religion, background — it brings everyone together, because everyone likes to win."

Junior Matt Golden's idea of Bates student-athletes mentoring kids from local schools inspired the creation of 'Bates Z Kids,' which builds relationships between Bates football players and coaches with Lewiston Middle School students. (File photo by Theophil Syslo/Bates College)

This season, the team has created a program entitled Bates Z Kids. The initiative was built on the idea of junior running back Matt Golden, and came together through the assistance of Darby Ray, Director of the Harward Center and Donald W. and Ann M. Harward Professor for Civic Engagement. The Harward Center's mission is to weave together campus and community for the enrichment of both liberal education and public life. 

Golden, a native of New Bedford, Mass., took inspiration from his high school basketball team to build a mentoring program in Lewiston. In high school, Manny DeBrito, the father of one of Golden's high school teammates, created warmup shirts for the team that read "A's Before J's," which stood for academics before jump shots, school before sports. In his sophomore year at Bates, Golden reached out to DeBrito to inquire about shirts for the football team, and DeBrito encouraged him to start a mentorship program as they had done at the high school level.

"I realized we had the perfect situation for running a program with the Lewiston Middle School right across the street from campus," said Golden. He pursued the idea not only by building the program, but also by researching it academically. He completed an independent study for credit through the sociology department, studying athletes as mentors and role models. 

"When I was growing up, I was constantly around high school athletes who I looked up to and had a great influence on me," said Golden. "They were the people I wanted to be like, and they cared enough to take the time to build relationships with me. I want the same for the kids at the middle school."

The name Bates Z Kids comes from its mission to form a bond with the Z generation. Each week football student-athletes and staff go over to Lewiston Middle School and visit with the same group of seventh and eighth grade students during their lunch period.

"I hope that the LMS students are able to see themselves becoming college students and athletes," said Golden. "It's a great opportunity to expose them to the idea of small college athletics, and remind them that we were all middle schoolers, just like them. I think that when a student is able to see themselves in a college student through a shared passion or activity, it's a great starting point for the student to create aspirations and goals."

Coach Hall wants his team to embrace this opportunity to see what they can give these middle school kids. He believes the consistency of being there each week at the same lunch period will foster bonds between the two groups.

"I want our guys to see that change can start with them," said Hall. "Their consistency with this group will build relationships, and that can make a difference in the middle schoolers' lives. Small change can inspire my guys, and inspire the kids at the same time, to make big changes. We're building relationships and giving them the pieces to make big changes."

Hall said he didn't know if the teachers were prepared for the energy and excitement the Bobcats brought to the lunch room on their first few visits, but everyone is enjoying the time spent together each week. He hopes to establish the next piece of the program where the middle schoolers can come and learn and experience campus with the team in the future.

"Coach Hall has a huge appetite for community engagement," said Ray. "The Harward Center is thrilled to work with him to develop partnerships and programs that grow his players and his team while making a difference in the lives of local youth. We're just at the tip of the iceberg of what is possible."

Golden wants to expand the reach of the mentorship between Bates and Lewiston Middle School. He hopes to get other groups on campus involved with sibling clubs at LMS. He would also like to team up some of the talented singers at Bates with the middle school chorus, and bring more athletic teams into the program.

"We want to build on Bates' purposeful work program under President Clayton and establish a culture of empowerment and service leadership," said Hall. "We are looking to build those pieces in our football program and leave that paw print on the community as well. That is what I want to teach my guys. I want them to know the importance of civic engagement. Every chance that we have to leave our paw print, we should."

— Paige Cooke