BELOIT - They may look like college students, but they are big kids at heart.
That's how it is for the 25 Beloit College baseball team members who visit their lunch buddies at Hackett Elementary School each week. They chat about sports and life and sometimes play games.
"I'm undefeated in Connect Four," said baseball player Jacob Baltierrez, who has been part of the program for three years.
Calling it one of the best decisions he ever made, Baltierrez of Whittier, California said being a lunch buddy helped him when he was homesick and missed his little brother. Over the years he's had three buddies. They've exchanged Snapchat messages, thoughts on life and more. Most days, he joked he just tries to keep up with his latest buddies' energy.
It's also been life-changing for A.J. Vega of Texas who meets with third grader Roman Trujillo-Soto.
"If I'm having a bad day, he brightens it up," Vega said of his pal.
Third grader Dwayne Burns tells his buddy, player Will Peterson of Illinois, about his dogs, cats and ferrets. Both Bears fans, they talk about sports and anything else.
"He is talkative like me," Dwayne said.
In its sixth year the program is stronger than ever, according to third grade dual language immersion teacher Jacquelyn DeGeorge. DeGeorge's husband, Beloit College Head Baseball Coach Dave DeGeorge, said the guys find happiness through making time for someone else.
"It's helped our guys feel less pressure at school and what they want to accomplish in baseball. They also have a little more gratitude for the opportunities they have in their life," Coach DeGeorge said. "Our guys have been helped just as much as the students at Hackett."
Six years ago Coach DeGeorge said he got three young men interested in the program, but because of a ride shortage had some obstacles. After an impassioned plea from the three players more young men started sharing rides, and the lunch gatherings have been strong ever since. He recalled some guys who would walk to Hackett from campus when they couldn't get a ride.
Assistant coach and former lunch buddy Mike Gulve said some students were so committed they would go to Hackett during winter break.
"It was a great experience being in an elementary school and creating a relationship," Gulve said.
Jacquelyn DeGeorge said it gives her students the chance to see themselves as college students. It's also a big treat to have someone show up for the kids simply because they matter. The bigs and littles have a lot of fun.
"They are adults, but they are still kind of kids. There's lots of playfulness," she said.