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Loyola High swimmer Connor Lee, headed to Yale, learns the magic of community service

Loyola High swimmer Connor Lee, headed to Yale, learns the magic of community service
Loyola swimmer Connor Lee is serving as a teacher's assistant during his three-week senior service project. (John Hong)

Connor Lee, 17, a Southern Section Division 1 swim champion headed to Yale, is in his final week working with kindergarteners through eighth-graders at St. Ignatius of Loyola parish school in Highland Park. It’s part of his mandatory senior service project to graduate from Loyola High.

Students have opened his eyes as much as he has probably opened theirs after just two weeks of being a teaching assistant.

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“Seeing how much they develop through reading, it reminded me of when I was in third grade,” he said. “It was heartwarming. I know I had so much energy and was so hyper. These kids want to be there so much.”

The best part of some high school programs is when they have a service project that requires teenagers to go outside of their comfort zone and take on assignments they wouldn’t normally consider. High school students might discover new interests in subject matters that challenge their beliefs.

“It is mandatory for all seniors, but what I notice, without Loyola, I would never have this experience seeing how other schools operate,’’ he said. “It’s amazing how happy these kids are without all the resources that others have.”

Lee went to a middle school in South Pasadena that had a jungle gym and large blacktop play area. The parish school is much smaller but the kids don’t seem to care.

“The balls they have are breaking down. They don’t have a goal for soccer but use street cones. They have so much fun enjoying what they have,” he said.

As he reads to students and answers their questions during class, it’s clear their enthusiasm for learning is similar to his. Lee, who won a Southern Section Division 1 team championship in swimming in 2016 and won an individual title last year in the 100 butterfly, wants to study computer science and economics at Yale.

He has taken three years of Mandarin, which hasn’t exactly been helpful with the large number of Spanish-speaking students at the school. But the challenge of working with kids and adults he had never met before has been a test for the future. They memorized his name faster than he learned theirs.

“What’s so different is you’re engaging and interacting with individuals rather than your peers and interacting with other adults in the workforce,” he said. “Fast-forward when I have to do a big production or meet big people.”

Loyola’s service requirement is in its 38th year and more than 11,000 seniors have participated. During the three-week period, they focus on giving back to the community as volunteers at hospitals, special education schools, soup kitchens and centers for battered women and shelters. They don’t take classes at Loyola during the three weeks; their focus is solely on community service.

Perhaps no job on the elementary school campus presents more potential peril than yard duty at recess. It’s the time for everyone to release their energy and someone has to be a good monitor, especially when objects start to be thrown in all directions.

“You have to be patient without being mean,” Lee said. “You have to be assertive.”

And what do you do if chaos erupts at recess?

He uses his swimming experience to guide him.

“While swimming, you have to control multiple things at once and think of multiple things at once while staying focused on finishing the race,” he said. “During recess, you have a lot of kids around. The first-graders want to do tag. The third-graders are into soccer. The fifth-graders are into basketball. You have to know the priority to fulfill everyone’s goal.”

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