The day has taken them from their tiny oasis of a school, which sits across the street from a boarded building, all the way to the world's most famous basketball arena.
Along the way, they have asked questions about Marcus Garvey and chattered about the election. They have been wowed by the Guggenheim and the bright lights of Times Square, and they have glimpsed Michael Jordan with their own eyes.
But at the end of the night, on a bus bound for Hartford, these schoolchildren become voices floating out of the darkness from the back of a Peter Pan charter, celebrating a day like few others in their young lives.
There is excitement when Yankee Stadium appears out the starboard window. There is the usual grade school gossip. "He's making up stories," a voice says. And there is wonder. "I'm going to tell my cousin I met Emeka Okafor."
The students are part of the Husky Sport program in Hartford. Some are spelling-bee champions from Clark Elementary School. Others are involved with the Kelvin D. Anderson Recreation Center and the Hartford Catholic Worker House.
Husky Sport, part of the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, connects UConn students with youths in Hartford's North End through in-school, after-school and summer activities.
The goal is to encourage students to choose a healthy lifestyle through nutritional education and mentoring. The mentors come through Associate Professor Jennifer Bruening, who developed the program at UConn.
Much of the funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which encourages education about the benefits of good nutrition and an active lifestyle. But some comes from Okafor, the former UConn basketball All-American, who donated $250,000, showing up at Clark School a year ago September to announce the gift.
On Wednesday, the students took a bus to meet Okafor in a private area of the NBA Store in Manhattan and see him play for the Charlotte Bobcats against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden.
"I'm very blessed to be able to do this," said Okafor, 26. "I'm just trying to help out and help the kids find a place where they can learn, where they can get some mentoring and learn how to eat right and exercise at a young age. I'm very happy to be part of it, and hopefully I can do more things like this in the future. Connecticut embraced me while I was there, and I am embracing them back."
Okafor arrived at the NBA Store at 5 p.m., just 2 1/2 hours before the game.
People who are paid to run interference for him suggested he had no more than five minutes, but Okafor shrugged and said he had more time than that. He went to each of the four tables of kids and chatted as he signed autographs. The students were shy and silent, but their eyes were wide and welcoming.
"He told me to study hard and stay in school," said Nadja Johnson, a fourth-grader at Clark.
"He told me to eat right and to exercise," said Leon Mullings, who attends Global Communications Academy.
For William Thomas, 11, the whole experience was summed up in a single word.
"Exciting," he said.
When Okafor left, the students hopped back on their bus and were taken to Madison Square Garden for the game. William purchased a foam No. 1 finger in Knicks colors but was one of the loudest to cheer when Okafor was introduced.
"He said to cheer him on," William said. "He said cheer him on."
Only one other person seemed capable of outmuscling Okafor for cheers. During the long drive into Manhattan, the students, especially the older ones, talked about the previous night's election. During the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," they stood ramrod straight until the end, when a few shouted "Go Obama!" into the din of the Garden's applause.
The game was a blur, but at the first timeout, Jordan, the top basketball executive of the Bobcats, who sat courtside, was introduced to the crowd. All around the Garden, and especially in the section filled with Hartford students, people stood and applauded. Jordan stood and waved, and the place went nuts.
Okafor played well, but the Knicks are more awake than they have been in years and the game was still close when the students had to leave for their bus ride home. The final score didn't matter anyway. The whole day was about an experience and about changing what some students have in their minds as the horizon of achievement.
"This is an exceptional program," Clark School Principal Beryl Bailey said. "It provides our children a glimpse into what college is about, and it gives them something to aspire to. When you look at a child's education, they need experience, exposure, energy and engagement.
"Oftentimes, they don't get the opportunity to go to a New York City, and it's another world for them. They don't see these buildings in their textbooks. They don't see these buildings in their neighborhoods, and it is an 'aha' moment for them. And Emeka's visit provides them with a connection and a positive role model who is not only a sports figure, but an educational figure."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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