CU Denver students volunteering

David Bruton Jr., a towering figure in almost any room, looks especially imposing when he walks into the lobby of Denver Public Schools’ Greenlee Elementary School. But there’s something so good-natured about him – likely the ever-present smile – that a grade-schooler strides up, cranes his neck and looks skyward.

“Are you a Denver Broncos player?” the boy asks. Bruton, now a CU Denver student working toward a second career as a physical therapist, smiles and says, “I used to be, but now I’m retired. I’m old.” The boy flashes a wry smile and walks off.

CU Denver student Katy Smith and reading partner
Katy Smith, a marketing major at CU Denver, with her second-grade reading partner at Greenlee Elementary.

Bruton arrives with a group of fellow CU Denver students who regularly join him at Greenlee to spend an hour reading one-on-one with second-graders. He is a longtime volunteer at schools around Denver and Dayton, Ohio, through his nonprofit, Bruton’s Books, and the David Bruton Foundation. Both entities work in partnership with the Mile High United Way and United Way of Greater Dayton.

Bruton’s love for philanthropy is snowballing with the CU Denver students. “Partnering with David and his foundation has offered us the opportunity to uncover our own individual love for giving back to the community,” said Katy Smith, a marketing major with an economics minor.

Inspires fellow CU Denver students to serve

Bruton used to spend his days crashing into football players – he played strong safety and on special teams, and was a member of the Super Bowl 50 champions – but now he hits the books. Last spring, he enrolled at CU Denver to knock out the science classes required to apply for physical therapy programs.

CU Denver student and former Bronco David Bruton
David Bruton Jr., a former Denver Broncos player and current CU Denver student, makes a goofy face along with his second-grade reading partner at Greenlee Elementary School.

Fortunately, good habits developed in his college and professional football days – Bruton was a three-year captain of the Broncos’ special teams, and in 2015 he received the team’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for outstanding service in the community – are hard to break. So when Smith read in CU Denver Today about Bruton being a fellow student as well as a devoted volunteer, she had an idea: maybe he could help her school organization, the Sports and Entertainment Business Club, connect to a community service project.

After they chatted, Bruton suggested that club members might enjoy reading to elementary kids. This fall, about 10 volunteers from the club, plus a few student volunteers Bruton recruited from his science classes, signed on to read once a week with a second-grader.

‘Kids are really into it’

The program, Power Lunch, pairs a volunteer reader with a single student for a full academic year. The Power Lunch program began six years ago and continues today through a partnership between Denver Public Schools (DPS), Mile High United Way, the DPS Foundation and the DPS Family and Community Engagement Office as an effort to bring more volunteers from the community into DPS classrooms.

CU Denver student Colette Kallina-Tran with reading partner
CU Denver student Colette Kallina-Tran reads a book with her partner at Greenlee Elementary in Denver.

Katie Wienecke, the school partner program manager for the DPS Foundation, said programs such as Power Lunch help the district with its goal to improve literacy rates. “The volunteers here build a connection with our kids, help them create a positive association with reading, and look at that – these kids are really into the experience,” she said.

So much so that a second-grader gave his reading partner, Mikel Uribarren, a CU Denver sports management and business major, a gift at a recent session. “He made me this (holding up a colorful picture) and gave me a hug,” Uribarren said. “These kids are great; I just feel they need someone to be there for them. I don’t work or have class on Fridays, so it’s perfect.”

For Smith, the time flies with her reading partner. “For 45 minutes every week, you don’t think about anything else,” she said. “You zone into the reading and all of the sudden time’s up. It feels therapeutic to read to these kids.”

‘I’m able to walk’

Jenna Malone is another active member of the Sports and Entertainment Business Club. Malone handles the club’s social media, while Smith and Uribarren serve as president and vice president, respectively. A business management major, Malone said she hasn’t previously done much community service. She enjoys how the one-on-one reading is a year-long commitment and, being located close to campus, is very convenient.

“At CU Denver, I’m in the middle of the city and I’m able to walk wherever I want,” Malone said. “There are a lot of connections around the school.”

How to get involved

The Sports and Entertainment Business Club is open to all CU Denver students. The club is planning to expand its community service projects as well as recruit more volunteers for its current mentorship of grade-school readers. For more information, visit the club’s website here. Also, check out the club’s Instagram stream @cusportsent and email any questions to club President Katy Smith at [email protected]

Having college students visit elementary school classrooms every week, Wienecke said, provides another positive role model for the kids and delivers an important college-access message. “It’s pretty big, and having a local celebrity (Bruton) do it – I mean, c’mon,” she said with a smile. “It’s great when we have college students come in and tell our kids, ‘I’m studying this or that, and I’m studying just five blocks from here at CU Denver.’ It opens up a whole other world and tells our kids, ‘You can do it, too.’”

Part of a community

Vicki Lane watched as the CU Denver students fanned out with the kids, books in hand, in the Greenlee classroom and library. Lane is director of the Sports and Entertainment Business Program in the CU Denver Business School and advisor of the Sports and Entertainment Business Club. She is gratified to see members of the club, which is open to all CU Denver students, fitting an altruistic project into their busy school and work schedules.

“They could be taking this time to organize club events or be very internally-oriented toward ‘what’s in this for me?’” Lane said. “They’re not required to do any kind of community service. They wanted to do this, so they organized it and pursued it, along with David’s help. I’m just thrilled to see the reward they’re getting by giving back.”

CU Denver student Brian Andreatta and reading partners
CU Denver student Brian Andreatta reads to two second-graders during the Power Lunch program.

Brian Andreatta, a CU Denver student who also hopes to attend physical therapy school, is a Navy veteran who heard Bruton make the reading-to-kids pitch during biology class. “This really means a lot to me because I just got out of the Navy and this gets me back into working in the community,” he said. “It’s so important, and I really enjoy teaching and hanging out with these kids.”

CU Denver student Colette Kallina-Tran is another pre-health major who reads weekly at Greenlee. She said students in her major tend to think they need to get experience volunteering at hospitals and interacting with patients. “What they don’t realize is that interacting with the community in general is important, too, because a lot of social issues, like educational disparities, can be connected to medicine,” Kallina-Tran said. “I became part of a community here at Greenlee that will give me valuable insight into my future career.”

Contributing to the greater good

Not surprisingly, Bruton, 30, stands tallest of this group of students as they reflect on their community service in Greenlee’s lobby. At 30 years old, Bruton decided to transition from being a patient – being a football player will do that to you – to taking on the role of care-giver. As Bruton works toward his physical-therapy career goal, he will keep up his community philanthropy – and he’s grateful to be accompanied by generous and eclectic fellow CU Denver students on both journeys.

“We’re building up as a community within our campus,” he said. “Here today, we have business students, a biology student, a pre-med student, older students, young students. We’ve all come together to make a difference, and that’s been the great thing about this.

“No matter your age, your background, your story, we all have something in common, and that’s an interest in contributing to the greater good.”

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