Giving Back

Mentorship Program Inspires Both Sides to Give Back

Ahmad Thomas isn’t one to sit on the sidelines. He’s a starting player on UNC Asheville’s men’s basketball team, and as a participant in the university’s Leaders for Leaders program, he’s making a difference in addition to making plays. This summer, he worked with mentor Kevin O’Connor to outfit Special Olympians with new Adidas uniforms.

O’Connor and Thomas were matched up through the UNC Asheville Athletics Leaders for Leaders program, which pairs student-athletes with members of the Asheville community, many of whom are also members of UNC Asheville’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). The program is sponsored by Colton Groome and Company.

“One day we were having a conversation, and Ahmad told me that he wanted to be an elementary school special needs teacher,” said O’Connor. “I just couldn’t believe that at his age he knew what he wanted and that he was already thinking about ways to serve his community.”

But, this doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary to Thomas.

“Wanting to work in special education is just something my heart grew into. Being around special needs individuals while I was younger and working with Special Olympics back in my hometown of Danville, Virginia brought me so much joy. They are kids who have their own unique powers. I just want to help out, and let them know that they aren’t different at all,” said Thomas.

“When I started thinking about Ahmad’s career plans, it challenged me to think about what I was doing to help others,” O’Connor said. So he reached out to Josh O’Conner (no relation) at the Special Olympics of Buncombe County and asked if there was a place where he could help. As fate would have it, they were looking for a basketball coach. So O’Connor advanced from mentor to coach, then he teamed up with UNC Asheville Athletic Director Janet R. Cone and women’s basketball coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick on the uniforms, purchased through a partnership with First Team Sports and the Walnut Cove Members’ Association. 

Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams continue to volunteer their time with the Special Olympic Team this fall, and as the Leaders for Leaders program continues in its third year, 58 mentors have signed up. It has expanded beyond athletics to the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) Program. The connections are already apparent. 

“Cutting out the middle [generation] sometimes lets old and young share their concerns and I think that’s been useful for both groups,” said OLLI Executive Director Catherine Frank. “It’s a voice who’s not your mom or your grandma who is in your corner—not your teacher, not your coach, but someone who is able to share some life experience and wisdom and do it in a slightly more objective way.”

But in Thomas and O’Connor’s case, coaching comes into it, a little. 

“By seeing Kevin work hard with this program, and hearing how much he enjoys working with the athletes just makes me want to follow his lead and help out in any way I can,” said Thomas.