Auburn icon inspires Chicago students to dream

Former Olympian shares her story at Camp iCare

By Jack Smith

It wasn't the kind of scene typical at most summer day camps.

The only sound in the room at Schmid Elementary School was the soft piano music playing from a portable speaker.

The young campers were all lying perfectly still and quiet on the floor—their eyes closed and arms spread out wide.

It wasn't nap time. It was time to dream. And it wasn't just any camp. It was Camp iCare, being hosted for the first time at the small public school on the southside of Chicago that has over the past year become part of the Auburn Family.

"Every single person in
this room is a genius."

- Reita Clanton

As part of the exercise, each camper at Schmid had written down their dreams, placed them over their hearts and relaxed on the floor. They were told to lie still and imagine their dreams coming true.

It was only fitting that Auburn Athletics icon and former Olympian Reita Clanton led the exercise and shared a heartwarming message about dreams.

"I'm a big believer in the truth and power of dreams," Clanton said.

The Opelika native told the scholars she began dreaming of competing in the Olympics when she was 12 years old.

The spark for her dream was ignited the moment she saw grainy black and white images of athletes competing in the 1964 Summer Games flicker to life on TV. It was the first time the Olympics had ever been televised. And it was the first time she'd ever seen women compete at such a high level.

"I was just mesmerized," Clanton told the campers. "I loved watching all those athletes compete."

It was an "outrageous dream" considering there were no organized sports for girls at the time—not at the university, high school or even town level.

Clanton told the story of how a sweet gum tree in the backyard of her childhood home in Opelika became what she called her "genius zone," the place she would think about and nurture her dream. Almost every day, she would climb the tree and daydream about competing for her country against the best athletes in the world.

"When I got in my genius zone, I could see and feel myself competing in the Olympics," she said.

Clanton challenged each Schmid scholar at the camp to dream big and literally write their own stories—no matter circumstances they might face.

She then taught them to spend time in their "genius zone," the quiet place they can go to imagine their dreams coming true, no matter what obstacles they face or what others say.

"You're going to discover that you're a genius," Clanton said with a beaming smile. "Every single person in this room is a genius."

One's genius is about more than being smart, Clanton said.

"Genius is the unique character and spirit of a person who influences life for the good," she said.

Dreaming of Auburn
As Clanton's gentle voice guided the group, bright-eyed campers like Miracle and Matrena wrote out their dreams on paper. Then they lay quietly on the floor, holding their dreams over their hearts.

Miracle, one of the Schmid scholars who visited Auburn last fall, wrote that her dream is to play basketball for the Tigers. It's a dream she can visualize after meeting with Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy and the team in their locker room during their trip to The Plains.

Martrena didn't get to visit Auburn last fall. She's only 5 and hasn't even started first grade. But she feels as much a part of the Auburn Family as any other scholar at Schmid. The dream Martrena wrote out in bright magic marker was to be a teacher. At Auburn University.

Even though 90 percent of the students at Schmid Elementary live at or below the poverty line—and few if any of the special guests who came to Auburn last fall had ever been on a plane or traveled far out of their own neighborhood—Clanton told them all they were limited only by their imaginations, not by the circumstances of life.

"Our dreams are the knowledge of our hearts," Clanton said. "What's purposed in your heart will always overcome your circumstance."

Clanton has been an integral part of Camp iCare since its inception. She was thrilled by the opportunity to visit Chicago and meet the young scholars she'd heard so much about.

"I'm just honored to be here with these scholars and be a part of this," she said. "I love Camp iCare, its mission and its message of empowerment."

Like the camp's other guest speakers, Clanton quickly noticed Schmid's core values plastered in large letters on the halls sound a lot like Auburn's: Respect. Family. Integrity.

"I was just excited to be a part of this because this partnership is so unique. For Auburn University to have this kind of influence on children here is really special."

Clanton said she was excited to see the reaction at Schmid when Auburn Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs and former Heisman winner Bo Jackson surprised the school with a visit last summer—and an invitation to campus. Clanton knew then it would result in much more than unforgettable memories for children who'd never had the chance to attend a college football game or even ride in an airplane.

'Anything is possible'
She knew from experience the trip would help light a fire in their hearts.

"I think it was really special that Jay and Bo came to their school," Clanton said. "You know these kids had to think 'anything is possible.'"

Clanton hopes and believes the memories of the scholars' visit to Auburn and the lessons they learned at Camp iCare about finding their "genius zones" will keep their dreams alive.

"You have to spend time with your dreams, and you have to let yourself see it and feel it.

Clanton has been a part of Camp iCare since it was started in 2009 by Sidney James and Sharon Wilbanks as a joint venture between the Women's Philanthropy Board and the Early Learning Center at Auburn, both of which are a part of the College of Human Sciences. Today it's a program of the Cary Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies and remains in partnership with the Early Learning Center.