While there’s less than one degree of difference in their latitudes on planet earth, the distance between Mount Shasta and South Orange, New Jersey, is nearly the entire width of the United States.

Across that great gap, Mount Shasta Elementary School third graders in Garren Hanon’s class have developed a connection with a private university in South Orange – and especially with the Seton Hall Pirates softball program.

Hanon said his class first adopted Seton Hall University three years ago as part of a program designed to get students thinking about future options at a young age.

While other MSE teachers have had less success getting colleges to participate, Hanon says Seton Hall and its softball coach, Paige Smith, have “embraced the idea of having an adopted California school.”

Hanon’s students wear their adopted college t-shirts on Fridays and, like Seton Hall’s mascot, his classroom is pirate-themed.

Asked in an email about her perspective on participating in the adoption program, Coach Smith said she believes “it is important to use any station that you have in life to help encourage others,” and her softball team “participates in a number of initiatives every year.”

Smith wrote, “The fact that this is a group of young, impressionable minds makes it even more important. Also – my mom is a school teacher that works in an underserved community. I listen to her talk about how many of her kids don’t think college is a possibility. They definitely don’t think that collegiate sports are within reach… so making my team accessible may help a handful of kids start to dream big.”

Hanon, who grew up in Yreka, calls himself “an ’80s kid” who was drawn to Seton Hall back when it was a Cinderella team in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

“I was drawn to different things than western movement culture. Like old established eastern college campuses, which Seton Hall has,” Hanon wrote in an email. “Pirate theme was a great excuse to see if Seton Hall would adopt me. I got lucky for sure.”

After Seton Hall’s president endorsed the adoption, Hanon said he and his students wrote to many athletes and some professors at the university in an attempt to develop some pen pal-like communication. Coach Smith wrote back, and the Mount Shasta students became pen pals with the entire softball team and coaching staff.

Coach Smith sends his class youth shirts free of charge, “along with an assortment of swag from the school.” Hanon says, “No college sends the swag that Seton Hall does. They take our partnership seriously.”

Seton Hall softball players send letters to Hanon’s class throughout the year and a large team poster with a letter on the back.

“We look up Seton Hall, talk about college and what it takes to get there,” Hanon wrote.

Seton Hall softball players “are encouraging and answer tons of questions, we even get some geography lessons in.”

Coach Smith said she believes it’s important for her players to give back, and they enjoy their pen pal relationship with the Mount Shasta students.

“It’s funny to see them sharing their notes with each other and then trying to one-up one another on their letters back to the class,” Smith wrote. “It’s important that my team realizes that what they get to do is a privilege and that with that comes the responsibility to pay it forward. To be honest though… my girls are great and I don’t ever have to remind them of that. In fact, we have logged more community service hours every year since I’ve been here.”

She said the team “voluntarily logs hundreds of hours each season...” In 2017, those hours have included: participating in a volunteer effort of planting, picking, rescuing, and delivering free fresh produce; a cancer support fund for a 19 year old student-athlete at Stony Brook in Long Island; a walk to raise funds and awareness for pediatric cancer patients; a Thanksgiving Basket program for those less fortunate; and a free softball clinic for an inner city girls team.

The way Hanon sees it, “The next level that Coach Smith took with it has been a big deal. She and her student athletes are terribly busy with school and playing a sport at a Division I level.

“It takes a true commitment to focus on getting a whole team to write to a little school way out in California once. She does it year long. I am proud to have the partnership with Seton Hall and our school is having a lot of fun with the process.”