College athletes mentor kids at domestic violence shelter

The athletes – football players at St. John's University in Minnesota – offer the children a different example for how men behave. The kids look forward to the athletes' visits – as do the players themselves.

Dave Schwarz/St. Cloud Times/AP
St. John's University football team members Cody Kohout (l.) and Will Gillach talk about their work as volunteers at Anna Marie's Alliance in St. Cloud, Minn.

Sometimes, all it takes is a puzzle. Or someone to help with homework.

The kids at Anna Marie's Alliance, a domestic violence shelter in St. Cloud, Minn., have new role models to look up to: St. John's University football players, the St. Cloud Times reported.

Cody Kohout and Will Gillach volunteer in the shelter's day care center. Shelter staff say having a young, male positive role model around has an important effect on kids dealing with very difficult life situations. They provide a different idea of how a man behaves, said Charles Hempeck, executive director of Anna Marie's.

"It just helps shift their thinking to know that it's OK to interact as a male this way," he said. "They are not always expected to be violent, to yell to get what I want. And they don't have to be afraid when they're interacting with a male."

Kohout first heard about Anna Marie's through a class in which another student discussed Anna Marie's. Kohout was intrigued.

"I went and got the volunteer information that night," he said. He's been volunteering for a little more than a year now.

Hempeck appreciates the players' enthusiasm.

"They're not here because of some class.... They're here because they care about their community; they care about the kids at this shelter and ... see the benefit," Hempeck said.

That decision has spread to other members of the football team, said Kohout, a senior player on the defensive line. Gillach is a sophomore wide receiver. Kohout helped bring Taylor Cook, an education and prevention advocate, to speak to the team.

"I'm pretty sure not a lot of guys knew what a problem domestic abuse is and how common it is in our communities," Kohout said.

Kohout wanted to confront the idea that football players condone or are prone to domestic and dating violence.

"Football players aren't necessarily prone to domestic violence than any other sector of men. There has been media coverage that's been pointed primarily at professional football players," Hempeck said. "It's really nice to see football players pushing back against that stereotype."

The connection spurred more players to consider volunteering with Anna Marie's, Kohout said.

In the day care center, Kohout and Gillach follow the kids' lead. Most of the time, it's just being there for them.

"If they want to play, we'll play. If they want to work on homework, we'll help them with homework. If they want to talk, we'll listen," Kohout said.

Families typically stay in a shelter about six weeks.

"It's enough time to establish a relationship with those kids. It's so cool to have them look forward to you coming each week, and us looking forward to seeing them," Gillach said.

Gillach connected well with two brothers on his first visit, a two-year-old and a 15-year-old.

"The little boy looked up to the older brother in such a way that was just incredible," he said. "I established a relationship with the older boy. I really felt like I was making a difference on kind of being a role model that he hadn't had and that he could pass that down to his little brother."

Gillach took a developmental psychology class that helped him understand how parents affect kids at an early age.

"I really drew some parallels to the experiences that these kids are going through.... It kind of drew me even closer to Anna Marie's ...– being that positive male role model that is so vital to kids at young ages."

The mothers at the shelter appreciate the players' work, too.

"When I come here, I feel that gratefulness radiating from the people here, whether it's the mothers or the kids. It's definitely a place I look forward to coming to," Gillach said.

They also get to know the moms.

"I had one mom, she was here and her landlord was trying to ... collect some money," Kohout said. "She didn't want to tell him where this place was and she didn't want to go alone. So I walked with her to the end of the block and we had ... a really nice conversation."

As much as they're helping the kids, they're learning as well. Both hope to become doctors. Kohout is thinking about going into psychiatry. Gillach thinks he may work with kids.

"I always say that lack of communication, lack of empathy are the root of all problems. And so that's definitely something I try to teach them," Kohout said. "But they also end up teaching me that in return. If I'm not hearing what they're saying, they'll let me know right away."

"When they see us, or they see a basketball hoop, or they see a puzzle, they just light up," Gillach said. "It radiates to everyone else. It really makes everyone else happy. It definitely reminds me to appreciate everything I have, especially the little things in life."

Gillach gives a lot of credit to Kohout.

"I don't know if I would have ever heard of it without Cody. And it's so cool that he's bridged a gap between St. John's and Anna Marie's," Gillach said. "I feel so lucky to be in this situation right now, as a sophomore, with two more years ahead of me. I think we're going to do some pretty amazing things in the future."

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