Camden kids get Olympic surprise

June 10, 2016 | Camden, NJ Full article here.  - It was Paralympian Lex Gillette's turn to execute a sneaky surprise Friday for the Camden students he'd mentored for two years.

Last month, Cooper's Poynt secretly planned a school day 5K to raise money for either a visit from their Team USA mentor, or a donation to his Rio 2016 trip in August.

As they walked three miles through North Camden on a day of record high May heat, Gillette worked out at his West Coast training facility, unaware of the urban school's scheme to give back to the guy who's been a major inspiration.

Gillette is usually a long-distance mentor to the school's first-graders and middle schoolers. Until now they've only communicated through Twitter and video chats. He was paired with the school two years ago through the Classroom Champions program, a mentorship program promoting goal-setting, healthy habits and honesty.

The organization's founder, Gold Medal bobsledder Steve Mesler, visited Cooper's Poynt in October to talk with students, show his medals and discuss their growing friendship with Gillette.

"Until now I've only heard their voices on the computer," Gillette, a blind track and field athlete, told the Courier-Post.

Cooper's Poynt students  listen to the story of Lex

Cooper's Poynt students listen to the story of Lex Gillette, a blind Paralympian who mentors them, during a surprise visit to the school. (Photo: Jose F. Moreno/Staff Photographer) 

He couldn't see their faces as he walked into the cafeteria Friday, but he could feel the energy as the little voices shrieked in joy.

"We thought we were just going to talk to him on the computer," said first-grader Janelle Otero, 6, wearing her blue Classroom Champions shirt.

"We were screaming 'Hi Lex!' He popped out of nowhere. My friend thought she was dreaming. I had to say, 'No, it's real life!'"

In two years, Gillette and his Camden crew have learned a lot about each other, he said.

They've learned about his progressive blindness, 13 surgeries to try to save his vision, and his world records and Olympic medal, despite his blindness.

Lex Gillette, a blind Paralympian who mentors Cooper's

Lex Gillette, a blind Paralympian who mentors Cooper's Poynt students in Camden, speaks during a surprise visit to the school. (Photo: Jose F. Moreno/Staff Photographer)

He's learned about their neighborhoods, their fears, and their families.

Gillette inspired seventh-grader Amir Phillips, 13, to finally ride his bike.

And in turn, the students' walk through the city to raise money inspired Gillette's visit.

"I think he's happy because he gets to meet us in real life," Janelle said, watching her classmates push the 6-foot-1 runner on a Pyne Poynt Park swing.

The visit, though, was short — just five hours.

"I'm the type of person, when it all ends, I'll start thinking about all the memories," Gillette said.

"It's a rewarding experience to be here."

Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; cromalino@gannettnj.com