49ers, Local Partners Team for Message of Togetherness

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Richard Sherman high-fived a third-grader at Williamson Elementary School and delivered a hard-hitting message in the process.

Sherman, the fearsome four-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, and 10 of his teammates visited the school Tuesday to plant a seed of compassion in the students.

The pro football players were the stars of a Community Day in the city. The goal was to teach youngsters to look out for each other and extend a hand of inclusiveness to those on the edge. It was sponsored by 49ers owners, and Mahoning Valley residents, Denise DeBartolo York and John York, who underwrite the Success After 6 program at the school.

Bob Hannon, director of the United Way of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley – which administers Success After 6 – said the Yorks reached out to him months ago to set up the day.

The players’ visit was informal but it seemed to make an impact. After all, it’s not every day that pro football players drop by the school. Joining Sherman were Nick Mullens, Ahkello Witherspoon, Dre Greenlaw, Ben Garland, DJ Reed, Fred Warner, Colin Holba, Mitch Wishnewski, Daniel Brunskill and Marcel Harris.

49ers Ahkello Witherspoon, cornerback, and Ben Garland, offensive lineman, sit with Williamson Elementary students.

Sherman enjoyed himself and said the kids seemed to get the message.

“It’s always great to hang out with kids,” he said. “They’re so innocent, so thankful, so joyful. They were really positive.”

Sherman, a father of two, said the program is effective.

“This world has a lot of negativity, a lot of isolation and just bullies,” he said. “This program is doing a great job of preaching togetherness, bringing the next person along, never leaving anybody behind, never letting anybody be sad.”

The players had a morning assembly with the students, followed by some activity time to get the conversation started. They finished up with lunch in the cafeteria.

Later in the day, the players visited the Easterseals J. Ford Crandall Rehabilitation Center to interact with young adults with autism and children in speech and physical therapy. The visit was held in conjunction with the Start With Hello program, which was created by Sandy Hook Promise and is designed to create a culture of inclusion in schools and end gun violence. 

Marquise Goodwin, wide receiver, works on an art project with a child at Easterseals.

Sandy Hook Promise is a Newtown, Conn.-based nonprofit co-founded by Mark Barden, Nicole Hockley and Tim Makris. Barden, its director, lost his 7-year-old son Daniel in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, which took 27 lives. The nonprofit works to ensure that others never know the pain of a school shooting, he said.

“It’s very personal to me,” Barden said. “It’s powerful to watch these communities come together and embrace this message.”

Tuesday’s program was the first time Sandy Hook Promise was able to collaborate with pro football players, he said. At one point during the players’ visit, they sat down with the kids and helped them write and decorate compliment cards, for which each child picked a fellow student and wrote nice things about him.

“One little boy was determined,” said Mullens, backup quarterback for the 49ers. “He wanted to write a card but wasn’t sure what to say, or the spelling. It was a process but we finished the card.”

Michelle Payich is the principal of Williamson School, which has about 275 students in grades kindergarten through eight. She said that one of her students pulled her aside to say this was a really good day.

“The students were extremely engaged throughout the assembly, and when the players were asking them questions, [their answers] were on point,” Payich said. “It especially meant a lot to the older students. They’re star struck in the first place, and of course we are big football fans in Youngstown.”

Payich said having football players as the messengers will make the message stick.

“This will leave a lasting impression on them,” she said. “They’ll never forget this day.”

Pictured above: 49ers Azeez Al-Shaair, Marquise Goodwin, Dante Pettis and Daniel Brunskill met with individuals at the Easterseals J. Ford Crandall Rehabilitation Center.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.