A group of kids poses with several college-age males wearing orange "Call Me MISTER" t-shirts.

A group of Call Me MISTER mentors and some of their students pose at the Camp iRock closing ceremonies at Liberty High School.

EASLEY — A group of Clemson University students in the nationally renowned Call Me MISTER program spent their summer vacations this year helping elementary school students improve their reading abilities and enjoy a camp experience they might not have had otherwise.

The six “MISTERs” participated as mentors and teachers’ aids during the six-week Camp iRock at three elementary schools in Pickens County – West End in Easley, Chastain Road in Liberty and Pickens Elementary in the city of Pickens.

Camp iRock is a free summer camp for underserved second- to fourth-graders who read below grade level with the goal of minimizing summer learning loss, promoting literacy and improving attitudes about learning. The camp is operated through a partnership between the Pickens County School District, the United Way of Pickens County and the Pickens County YMCA.

Clemson University student and Call Me MISTER program volunteer Donovan Waddell, a senior studying elementary education, helps two third-graders go through a list of sight words at West End Elementary School in Easley.

Winston Holton, the field coordinator for Clemson’s Call Me MISTER program who also happens to serve on the United Way of Pickens County Education Council, knew the two programs would be a perfect fit for each other.

“When the whole idea of Camp iRock was conceived they came to the United Way as a possible funder, and as a member of the United Way Education Council I was able to help green-light this,” he said. “I knew right away it would be a natural partnership in terms of bringing our guys here.”

Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) was created at Clemson to increase the pool of available teachers from broader, more diverse backgrounds, particularly among the state’s lowest-performing elementary schools. MISTERs are all education majors who plan to become teachers in socio-economically disadvantaged and educationally at-risk communities upon graduation.

Since its inception the program has expanded to more than 20 colleges across South Carolina and nine universities in other states. Clemson is the largest producer of Call Me MISTER graduates and is responsible for about one-fifth of the 268 MISTER alumni serving as teachers, principals and teacher education faculty members across South Carolina.

A college-aged man leans over the shoulder of a boy who is writing with a pencil on a pad of paper.

Clemson University student and Call Me MISTER program volunteer Alex Koch, a senior studying elementary education, helps third-grader Bryson Cobb read through an essay Cobb wrote.

The program focuses on mentoring, with the teaching of self-esteem, imagination and determination given equal weight as reading, writing, and arithmetic. To accomplish this, MISTERs strive to be more than figureheads at the front of the class – they take the time to listen to, bond with and earn each child’s respect. In exchange, the children are expected to conduct themselves with the same dignity.

A college-age man puts his arm around a young boy as the two walk down a hallway with their backs to the camera.

Clemson University senior and Call Me MISTER participant Brian Green walks with one of his students to the Camp iRock closing ceremonies.

Holton explains that participating in programs like Camp iRock gives the MISTERs a taste for what it’s like to work from the front of the class – experience that augments and undergirds what’s being learned during their programs of study at Clemson.

“We use this as part of our developmental model for our young men who are pre-service teachers,” he said. “For six weeks they serve at the heels of incredible teachers and educators to learn their craft. It’s a head start on their student teaching experience. It’s a symbiotic relationship – our guys are getting training while at the same time rendering invaluable service to these students.”

Two young boys hug a college-aged man in an orange "Call Me MISTER" shirt.

It’s never goodbye: Brian Green, a Clemson University senior and Call Me MISTER mentor shares a moment with two of his students at the Camp iRock closing ceremonies.

From the other side of the desk, having male role models in the classroom who give one-on-one attention is a priceless experience for many of the children in the program, said Camp iRock director Kimberly Robson.

“To have men interacting with them every day in their lives is eye-opening for them,” she said. “Showing them that education is important, and being active, manners and respect… I can’t put a value on how much it means to these kids.”

Charlene Holliday, a participating teacher at West End Elementary School, who is going into her 30th year as an educator, echoed Robson’s sentiment.

“The MISTERs are awesome because they work one-on-one and build that relationship with the children. It’s an extra set of hands and it’s really good for the children to have that positive relationship,” said Holliday, who was teaching a class of third-graders. “This is a great opportunity for our struggling readers to become proficient. All of these children right now are on grade level and ready for fourth grade.”

The MISTERs themselves relished the opportunity to make an impact on their young students and went above and beyond to make the experience memorable for them. For instance; MISTER Alex Koch, who spent the summer under Holliday’s wing, persuaded Walmart to donate Rubik’s Cubes for every child in his classroom.

A young girl watches a man twist a Rubik's Cube

Third-grader Ayane Gant watches as Clemson University student and Call Me MISTER program volunteer Alex Koch solves a Rubik’s cube at Camp iRock.

“That’s how I wanted to leave my mark on Camp iRock – giving them something to remember me by and keep throughout their educational journey,” said Koch, who elicited squeals and gasps from his students as he flipped, clicked and solved a cube in under two minutes.

The culminating event for Camp iRock was a joyous closing ceremony at Liberty High School attended by students, family members, teachers and MISTERs from all three locations. Each school group dressed up in different themes – this year it was Transformers, pirates and the Incredibles. Awards were presented for perfect attendance, improved reading and character before each school group performed a short skit and chant for all the friends and family members in attendance. The event was a boisterous, pep rally-like affair that energized the kids, who beamed with pride as their families were able to observe what they’d been up to all summer.

“Camp iRock and the MISTERs are a blessing,” said Robson. “Our children our benefitting from it and therefore our community’s going to too.”

A group of kids run across a wooden gym floor towards the camera.

Children from West End Elementary run across the Liberty High School gym floor dressed as pirates at the Camp iRock closing ceremonies.

Part of the Call Me MISTER student vision states each MISTER must be “devoted to planting seeds of dignity and respect in children and inspiring them to cultivate those seeds producing a crop of unprecedented success” while the United Way of Pickens County states its mission is “to mobilize the caring power of Pickens County to improve communities and individual lives in measurable and lasting ways.” Mixed with positive elements from the Pickens County YMCA and school district, that combination became a powerful force in the lives of hundreds of deserving children this summer.

“They come to work on their reading,” said Robson. “But they get so much more.”

END