Ohio State’s George Reese unveils mentorship program for freshmen

The physical distance between George Reese and a few dozen high school students was only a matter of feet.

It just took quite a few years to cross them. Tuesday morning in Independence, the former Ohio State men’s basketball player was back at his alma mater and seated in one of four chairs on the floor inside the auditorium. Staring at him were members of the school’s freshman class, grouped in a dozen rows with handwritten letters indicating seating locations.

They were chairs Reese used to sit in. The journey from those yellow folding chairs in the audience to navy blue on the floor took nearly 30 years, but after a basketball career which led him to a Final Four with Ohio State as he played for the Buckeyes from 1998-2000 and around the world as a professional, it took him back to a time and place where he recognized a need from his own experiences.

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“Everything about this event today is about relationships”

Microphone in hand, Reese looked up at the gathered boys to hear his message.

“I walked these walls here at Independence a long time ago,” said Reese, a 1995 graduate. “We understand everything you’re going through. We understand the transition from middle school to high school and want to be there for you. We want to work on building relationships.

“Everything about this event today is about relationships.”

November 2, 2022;  Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Former Ohio State University men's basketball player George Reese introduces the ACE program for freshman boys at Independence High School.  Mandatory Credit: Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch

The occasion was written in black and white on Reese’s chest: a black sweatshirt with “ACE PROGRAM” written in bold white letters. Part of Reese’s ‘Always With Us’ charity, which was founded nearly a decade ago, this new initiative named after his daughter, Aila, will provide life skills training and mentorship to first-year students. from high school.

In partnership with Columbus City Schools and My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative launched by President Barack Obama in 2014 to “close the persistent gaps in opportunity faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential,” according to its webpage, the plan is for ACE to pair freshmen with mentors for weekly meetings.

“The goal is to be able to provide someone who can help them work on their soft skills,” Reese said. “They talk about hard skills, where if you’re going to work at Amazon or these other big places, they can teach you how to do a good job, but I think soft skills are what keep that job going. Learn to deal with others, learn to defuse emotionally. This is why social-emotional learning is going to be key. Building relationships.”

George Reese joined by current former Ohio State basketball players

To get things going, Reese called on some familiar faces. Sean Anthony, Independence alumnus and radio host on WXMG-FM (95.5), hosted the event as DJ IQ, also an Independence alumnus and radio host on WZCB-FM (106.7), played tunes throughout. Former Ohio State player and Columbus City product Seth Towns alongside the current Buckeyes joined Reese to speak with the crowd. Zed Key and Isaac “Ice” Likekele.

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For one man, the four speakers who saw the action for the Buckeyes emphasized the need for teens to build strong relationships to help them prepare for what lies ahead in life.

“I always like to try to offer knowledge or wisdom or whatever I can to children who have found themselves in a position similar to mine,” Towns, who holds a degree from Harvard and a master’s degree from Ohio State, said. “The one thing about all these kids is that they are so capable. They just need a little more guidance than others. I’m glad Zed and Ice could come too, because it takes a whole village.

November 2, 2022;  Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Independence High School freshmen react during an event featuring a mentorship and stills program at their school, an effort spearheaded by former Ohio State University men's basketball player George Reese.  Mandatory Credit: Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch

The freshmen were attentive even if they were chatty at times throughout the presentation. Towns, a Northland graduate, said he saw children on their phones that reminded him of himself at their age. At the end, Reese asked the freshmen what their needs were that needed to be met.

Responses included tutoring services, funding, more people to talk to, and motivational books in the school. Before handing out free Chick-Fil-A lunch boxes to the kids, Reese directed them to a scannable QR code displayed on a screen that would provide a link where potential mentors could register to participate.

The two current Buckeyes were just 12 hours away from an exhibition win over Chaminade on Monday night. Key cited his family for providing him with much-needed guidance throughout his great years, while Likekele mentioned life coaches from his youth to the crowd before later naming a long list of key men who helped him. supported while her father worked three jobs to support their family.

The duo plan to continue with the program as much as their schedule allows, which Reese said will be particularly impactful.

“These guys are celebrities playing for this institution,” Reese said. “Seeing them and being able to talk to them and reach out to them, they can tell them that they’re dealing with some of the same things they went through in high school and how they made it through and succeed, that’s huge. I didn’t have access to it when I was in high school.

November 2, 2022;  Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Former Ohio State University men's basketball player George Reese listens to fellow former player Seth Towns speak during the introduction of a coaching and mentoring program for freshmen at Independence High School on Wednesday.  Mandatory Credit: Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch

Speaking to the children, Towns told them that “you never stop learning” and that we have two things: character and the relationships we build.

It’s the type of message that Likekele, 22, says only landed with him after he left high school. Now, thanks to Reese’s program, it’s his turn to try to land those words in the minds of a younger generation.

“I really want things to be better for our world in the future,” he said. “If youth is our future, what better way to influence the future than to empower youth? On top of that, I feel like the knowledge I learned, I learned so late. Why not pass it on to them while they’re in high school?

“Knowledge is power, so this knowledge I have, I’m going to give it all to them.”

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Ryan H. Bowman