The money was real. So did the smiles, hope, and excitement on the faces of several dozen Columbus City Schools elementary school children.
It was Wednesday morning and bus after bus rolled into the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center in New Albany for a day of real life experiences. Inside the building is a simulated city, complete with traffic lights, shops, stores and a working bank. And one by one, children with disabilities who were learning basic life skills through a hands-on approach were given their $12 to spend however they chose.
As they visited the marketplace, worked on projects in the art studio, or hung out with the pet rabbit or guinea pig in the pet space, they were greeted by a couple of extra-large new faces. Four members of the Ohio State men’s basketball team spent an hour here as part of their partnership with The Foundation, a collective formed to enable Ohio State student-athletes to benefit from their name, likeness and likeness rights in Lifetown Columbus.
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Gene Brown III, Isaac Likekele, Zed Key and Justice Sueing shook hands, posed for photos and shared their time with kids who not too long ago would have been sidelined rather than preparing for the real world. At Lifetown, they learn about independence and self-worth.
The experience made an impression on the Buckeyes.
“For me, it was the reality of the real world how far things had come,” Likekele said. “Primary school, kids who needed extra help or special help, it was so isolated in this fake world. Here it is like their mini reality. It’s like here they’re dealing with reality first and then learning how to do it on a larger scale.”
Along with Buckeye Cruise for Cancer and A Kid Again, Lifetown Columbus is one of the foundation’s three charitable partners. It’s one that Brian Schottenstein, co-founder of The Foundation and President of Lifetown, personally chose to partner with as the collective got started.
Schottenstein, along with Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann, helped guide players through the simulated city of nine venues. Kaltmann enthusiastically introduced them to the volunteers who work at each company and repeatedly thanked all four players for helping to confirm the children in attendance, telling them they were “holy people” because they spent time with the spend with children.
“We want to create a level playing field and these guys make such a big difference,” said Kaltmann.
So much was true at the nail salon, where one boy insisted on hitting each player with his fist before posing for a tough-looking photo with his arms crossed across his chest. As they visited the doctor’s office and paused briefly to duck their heads under the foreshortened doors of the miniature city built for children, Likekele sought out each child and shook their hands. Key held a boy while he was hanging around the deli, set him down and then had to pick him up again when the boy insisted.
“These guys are stars in their eyes,” said Schottenstein. “They look up to them. They watch the games and having them here, hanging out with them, taking pictures with them, it gives them something to be really proud of and gives them some confidence.”
Brown especially enjoyed spending time in the bank with the kids, who begin preparing for their journey weeks in advance by working on lesson plans in class.
“I think when people think of NIL all they think about is pure money, but things like that are really the true aspects of NIL,” Brown said. “Giving back to the community, being able to bond and connect with people that you wouldn’t normally see in your day-to-day life as a student athlete. It’s great that the Foundation can connect us to opportunities like this.”
After an hour had passed, it was time for the Buckeyes to leave. The training room sessions were upon us, as was the day’s pre-season training. The children, who visit up to half a dozen times a year, are halfway through their two-hour session. There are bikes to pedal, snacks to buy, and more opportunities to learn real-world skills.
Before they leave, a little girl burst in with her teacher. As a huge Buckeyes fan, she wanted to make sure she got a photo too.
“It really warmed my heart a bit,” Likekele said.