Hall of Famers inspire Petersburg students, sharing stories of hope

Hall of fame athletes visited several Petersburg public schools to talk with students about their own stories -- and struggles with mental health.
Published: Oct. 16, 2023 at 7:44 PM EDT
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PETERSBURG, Va. (WWBT) -Petersburg’s police chief calls it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the city. Hall of Fame athletes visited several Petersburg Public Schools to talk with students about their own stories and struggles with mental health.

”Our youth here in our community, over the years, have lost hope,” Petersburg Police Chief Travis Christian said. “For years here in our city, you know, we’ve been plagued with gun violence here in our city, lack of education, lack of resources. That has been in our city throughout the years, but we are on the rise. And we want our community as well as our youth to feel that sense of pride.”

The event was an effort to restore that hope for students and their families in Petersburg through conversations with people who can be seen as role models. Several athletes, including The Pro Football Hall of Fame members, visited students in Petersburg to encourage them to set goals and stick to them.

It’s a part of “Strong Youth Strong Communities” in the Petersburg school system. It’s about supporting youth to create better generations ahead.

“They’re passionate. They want to be construction workers, business owners, and so we’re just trying to help them get the resources they need to succeed. Because we’ve all benefited from mentorships and individuals who can speak life into them,” former UNC Women’s Basketball player Iman McFarland said.

McFarland was joined by Darrell Green, Bruce Smith, Aeneas Williams and Anthony Munoz in visits to Petersburg High School, Pittman Academy and Vernon Johns Middle School.

Each player came with a background similar to the kids in the city in some way, so they could help relate to the students.

The visits included breakout sessions for the students to have intimate conversations with the players and seek their advice and perspective on current life problems. Kids also learned about resources available to help them overcome adversity.

”The students are not fooling anybody. They know where they made mistakes, and they’re ready to move forward,” Darrell Green said.

Students say mental health is one of the bigger struggles they currently face, and it was comforting having the athletes there able to listen.

“We all have our stuff to go through, but there are not a lot of people who really care,” Pittman Academy student Anthony Monterville said.

Students say listening to the athletes motivates them to find solutions.

“They’ve been through these types of challenges that we see right here in our same city. But they made it, and our students can do the same,” Christian said.

Students and staff are already seeing an impact from this day, and the results will only grow over time.

“Our kids just love when you take the time to come in. And the stories some of those football players have, some of our kids can relate to. And that’s what it takes to make a difference, to learn to trust you and to feel they can build a bond with you,” Pittman Principal Dr. Marseillaise Maxey said.

Students and staff say they hope to continue holding it in future years to bring pride back into the city.