Originally published Sept. 28, 2021 by Upworthy.
By Annie Reneau
When Benny Mendez asked his middle school P.E. students why they wanted to participate in STOKED—his new after school program where kids can learn to skateboard, snowboard, and surf—their answers surprised him.
"I want to be able to finally see the beach," students wrote. "I want to finally be able to see the snow."
Never having seen snow is understandable for Mendez's students, most who live in Inglewood, CA, just outside of Los Angeles. But never having been to the beach is surprising, since most of them only live 15-20 minutes from the ocean. Mendez discovered many of them don't even know how to swim.
"A lot of the kids shared that they just want to go on adventures," says Mendez. "They love nature, but...they just see it in pictures. They want to be out there."
Mendez is in his third year of teaching physical education at View Park K-8 school, one of seven Inner City Foundation Education schools in the Los Angeles area. While many of his students are athletically gifted, Mendez says, they often face challenges outside of school that limit their opportunities. Some of them live in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to leave their houses at certain times of day due to gang activity, and many students come to his P.E. class with no understanding of why learning about physical health is important.
"There's a lot going on at home ," says Mendez. "They're coming from either a single parent home, or foster care. There's a lot of trauma behind what's going on at home...that is out of our control."
What Mendez can control is what he gives his students when they're in his care, which is understanding, some structure, and the chance to try new things. Mendez wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most days and often doesn't get home until 9:00 p.m. as he works tirelessly to help kids thrive. Not only does he run after school programs, but he coaches youth soccer on the weekends as well. He also works closely with other teachers and guidance counselors at the school to build strong relationships with students, and even serves as a mentor to his former students who are now in high school.
Now Mendez is earning accolades far and wide for his efforts both in and out of the classroom, including a surprise award from Yoplait and Box Tops for Education.
Yoplait and Box Tops are partnering this school year to help students reach their fullest potential, which includes celebrating teachers and programs that support that mission. Yoplait is committed to providing experiences for kids and families to connect through play, so teaming up with Box Tops provided an opportunity to support programs like STOKED.
"We know that Box Tops believes that a child's education is the foundation to achieving their fullest potential," says Rachel Letsche, assistant manager of Brand Experience at Yoplait, "so we thought that by coming together, we could help schools and parents both teach and raise 'good little humans'."
In recognition of his extraordinary dedication, Yoplait and Box Tops recently surprised Mendez by paying for every item on his Amazon teacher wishlist, including a tent, chairs, two portable basketball hoops as well as colorful bands, balls and cones.They also presented Mendez with $10,000 in Box Tops for his school to develop and support more programs like STOKED, along with a note praising his efforts:
Dear Mr. Mendez,
Your passion for physical fitness has inspired hundreds of View Park students to lead healthier lives! You've used your own story to relate to and mentor students who need it most. You've used your passion to help bring new and interesting sports like Skateboarding, Surfing and Snowboarding to your school.
Your dedication to your work leaves little free time, yet you still spend your weekends coaching youth soccer. Your influence will continue to change the world and lives for years to come.
As a thank you for being a role model in the classroom, Box Tops for Education has purchased every item on your wishlist and is giving ICEF View Park Middle School $10,000 that can be used toward bringing even more incredible programs to your students.
Thank you, Mr. Mendez!
Yoplait & The Box Tops for Education Team
The award is particularly meaningful for Mendez as securing funding at a Title 1 school can be difficult.
"In order to provide these opportunities for students at no cost, the athletic director and I work on the funding, getting grants, and making sure that the students don't have to put any of their own money," Mendez explains.
"Funding has continued to be a challenge just in order for me to have the equipment here at the school. Writing the grants is very time consuming. Applying for certain scholarships has been a challenge."
Over the past 25 years, nearly $1 billion in Box Tops has gone to K-8 schools in the US. As part of General Mills' commitment to advance equity in education, Box Tops now has a renewed focus to help the students in schools where support is most needed.
Within the Box Tops app, shoppers can now use the search feature to find and select Schools in Need to receive funding from purchases of Box Top products. This back-to-school season, in addition to Mendez's school, Box Tops and Yoplait also donated $10,000 in Box Tops to another School in Need, Jefferson Elementary in Lennox, California.
Mendez is no stranger to the financial realities his students face, having grown up in a poor family himself. His own middle class P.E. teacher would waive his fees for cross country running competitions, which enabled him to participate in a sport he loved. Mendez credits that teacher with helping him come out of his shell and build confidence, something that Mendez now tries to do with his own students. The key, he's learned, is opening up to them about his own life and his own challenges, which helps them relate to him and feel comfortable opening up to him.
All of these accomplishments are quite extraordinary for a man who didn't even intend to become a teacher. When Mendez started college, his goal was to become an athletic trainer for professional athletes. But as he advanced in his studies, he realized that his true passion was working with student athletes, helping them develop their skills and talents, and trying to make a positive impact in their lives.
Mission accomplished, Mr. Mendez. Thank you for being a shining example, not only for your students, but for the rest of us as well.