AURORA, Ill. -- East Aurora seniors Andrew Fischer and Tramell Weathersby and three fifth-graders form an imperfect circle on the hardwood basketball floor at Gates Elementary School.
Fischer, Weathersby and the rest of the varsity Tomcats just finished leading a larger group of fifth-graders in a set of basketball drills. The 30 minutes spent playing hoops was painless for both parties. The fifth-graders' eyes were opening wide as Ryan Boatright, one of the state's top juniors, and others dribbled between their legs, threw pinpoint passes and elevated over the rim for easy layups. For the high school players, they were doing what they loved.
Now, it gets a bit more difficult. The Tomcats have been broken up in small groups with the fifth-graders to talk about school, leadership, attitude, responsibility and more.
The fifth-graders are shy. Fischer and Weathersby read off questions from the provided sheets, and the answers they get back are quiet and short. The fifth-graders mostly nod, smile and look away. Fischer and Weathersby aren't giving up. Both begin sharing more about their lives and how the questions pertain to them. Fischer talks about how he didn't care much about his grades when he was younger, and he now regrets it. Weathersby, the Tomcats' team captain, gives examples of how to be a leader.
As times passes, the fifth-graders get more comfortable and begin opening up. Their answers become longer. They talk more about their classes and home lives. They laugh. Fischer and Weathersby sit back and listen.
Sitting just outside the circle, Caleb Luper, 32, smiles. This is beyond what he ever envisioned for Triple Threat Mentoring.
Luper took a risk two and a half years ago and abandoned his well-paying IT consulting job, gave up his pension and jeopardized his family's financial future for this. He knew there was more to life than making money and coasting. He and his wife had been on mission trips to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and it had a lasting effect on him. While he realized working 9 to 5, wearing a suit and bringing in a salary was the smart and secure thing to do, Luper couldn't stand it any longer. His urge to help others was too great.
His solution was Triple Threat Mentoring. Through athletics, academics and the arts -- where "Triple Threat" comes from -- he sought to go into Aurora's low-income neighborhoods and empower its youth by developing their confidence, character and life skills while also inspiring high school and college students to become leaders and getting the adults in the community involved.
"[The mission trips] showed me you can't change the world, but you can change somebody's world," Luper said. "I kind of brought that concept here. To be honest with you, I didn't even know what I was starting. I felt so compelled to help and do whatever."
What began as a one-man organization with the basic idea of helping Aurora's youth through athletics -- which at first received a mixed reception from the community -- has evolved into a multi-person organization that reaches out to the area's kids through everything from basketball drills to learning how to paint to teaching them the basics of the financial world. Schools throughout the state now approach Luper for the organization's services, and it has received support from hundreds of volunteers and partnered with Nike and PowerBar.
"I pinch myself all the time," Luper said. "There probably isn't a day that goes by where I don't say, 'Thank you, God. This is amazing.' It is the most incredible thing you can do. When you look into a kid's eyes, and he's smiling, dude, it'll change you."
Weathersby has witnessed the impact he can have. He sees how the fifth-graders hang on his every word. He just wishes there had been something like this when he was young.
"When I was growing up, I was basically on my own," Weathersby said. "I would go to the park by myself. I was by myself. Triple Threat, we're like big brothers to them. We help them, give them hope and show them they can be where we're at. I tell them to stay focused and never let down. 'If you have a dream, keep going for it. Never let your head down to no one.'"
Fischer's main message to the fifth-graders was the importance of academics. He didn't want them to repeat the mistakes he made.
"This is fun," Fischer said. "I don't have any little brothers or sisters, so it's kind of fun meeting with little kids, teach them the right ways, especially how my past has been. I kind of messed up in the past.
"My freshman year, I wasn't doing good. I was like a little class clown in elementary and middle school. I messed up on my grades. I try to teach these kids now that grades are the most important thing if they want to get somewhere in life. These kids are young, so they got all the time in the world. You just lead them down the right path."
This is exactly why East Aurora coach Wendell Jeffries jumped at the chance to be involved with Triple Threat Mentoring. He saw the opportunity to help the community, but he also believed it would develop his players' leadership.
"I kind of smiled a little bit," Jeffries said. "I had them demonstrate a drill we do almost every day in practice. Sometimes you wonder if they're really listening to you. They were in the situation where they had to lead the drill and show the kids. I hear them saying the same thing we said, 'Put your right foot forward and bend your knees.' It's teaching them to be a teacher and has a nice effect on them."
Nike and PowerBar were just as eager to get involved. They have donated apparel, equipment, energy bars and nutritional handouts.
"At Nike, we believe in the power of sport and its ability to enable young people to change their lives and their communities," Nike spokeswoman Cindy Hamilton said. "That's why we partner with Triple Threat Mentoring, because the organization, through the lens of sport, gives youth new opportunities and insights."
PowerBar sports nutritionist Tricia Griffin was especially motivated to get involved because of her own ties with the community.
"On a personal level, I grew up in Aurora -- fourth generation, actually -- and had grandparents attend East Aurora High School," Griffin said. "I have a grandfather in the athletic hall of fame there. My father, Al Pike, was very active in the community, and it was his dying wish for our family to help to establish programs to serve the youth in our hometown. I am grateful to have the opportunity to continue my father's legacy with Caleb and Triple Threat.
"After speaking with Caleb Luper, and hearing his passion and vision for Triple Threat, it was like a lightning bolt hit us both. There were so many opportunities PowerBar could step in and help out with. The community of sport that PowerBar exemplifies is such a perfect fit with Triple Threat."
With such community and corporate support, Triple Threat Mentoring has quickly grown at a pace that Luper is struggling to keep up with. He has already hired five full-time staff members, and the number of volunteers grows by the day. Last year, they had 300 volunteers participate in 44 events or programs, which included about 3,600 kids.
Luper's plan is to expand Triple Threat Mentoring throughout the country. Just as he tells Aurora's youth, he isn't going to limit himself.
"Dream as big as possible because you can," Luper said. "So many people have myths about what under-resourced, low-income communities are like, but they're full of awesome kids, seriously."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.