By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - At Schmid Elementary on Chicago's South Side, the school colors of blue and white now include a third option. Orange, as in Auburn orange.
"When we have Spirit Day, they all wear their Schmid things, they'll also wear their Auburn shirts, and say 'This is now a Schmid shirt,'" says Schmid principal Andrea Black. "They can wear all of their Auburn, all of their orange, to offset that blue and white."
Especially for Schmid's fifth-graders who visited Auburn in September 2015 as third-graders.
"That group, they believe that Auburn colors are now Schmid colors," Black says.
An enduring connection
An unlikely connection -- as a video documenting the relationship between the schools is titled -- now is an enduring one, thanks in part to former Auburn football players Nosa Eguae and Justin Garrett.
"I was just so inspired by a group of kids from the inner city of Chicago to take a liking to a university that means so much to me," says Eguae, a defensive lineman from 2010-13.
Three years ago, the second graders in Quinlan O'Grady's class studied Auburn for their college week. The scholars, as teachers and staff at Schmid refer to their students, produced a video reciting Auburn's history and fight song, which they shared on social media.
That summer, Auburn University representatives, including Aubie, Chicago resident Bo Jackson and Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs visited Schmid, surprising the scholars with an invitation to visit Auburn in the fall.
"We were all touched by these young students' preparation, passion for learning and expression of the Auburn spirit," Jacobs said after visiting Schmid. "We're excited to be part of a university that cares enough to bring them to campus for an experience we hope will open doors and show them anything is possible."
'The Auburn way and the Auburn love'
Eguae with a Schmid scholar at Auburn's Camp iCare
At the time, Eguae had just moved to Chicago to work in medical device sales for Baxter International, Inc. The following year, he helped Garrett, an Auburn teammate, land a job with the company.
The former Tigers soon became familiar faces at Schmid, reading to scholars, speaking at career day and taking part in Auburn's Camp iCare in the summer.
"I just wanted to see what it was that I can do, being a resident of Chicago, just to keep that going," Eguae said. "To continue to show those kids the Auburn way and the Auburn love, and make sure that they all understand that they're a part of the family forever.
"It's been a great experience to shed light on our story, on our background, and to be of inspiration to those kids. They keep inviting me back and I keep going."
Principal Black appreciates community volunteers who invest in Schmid, especially those who do so consistently.
"Our scholars know them by name," Black says. "They have demonstrated an intense commitment to our scholars. They're building trust. They are building family with our scholars. They are creating consistency that doesn't exist in other places."
"We try to impact and give back to the kids," says Garrett. "To insure that they achieve the successes that we were able to and put them in a better position than they're in right now. That's why our main focus is creating a platform to give back. It's really gratifying to see the smiles on their faces."
'I'm better for it'
After speaking at career day, Eguae handed Schmid's scholars his business card. Soon after, his phone began ringing.
"'Hey, Nosa, just want to touch base with you. Just want to tell you what I'm doing. I made my grades this year,'" Eguae remembers. "Different things like that. Opening up my phone line to say, 'Hey, if you need somebody to talk to, I'm here.' I didn't know I was going to get as many calls as I did, but it was awesome."
Upon learning of Eguae and Garrett's Schmid connection through a company newsletter, a coworker offered tickets to a Chicago Bears preseason game for Nosa, Justin and two scholars.
Brothers DeAndre and DeShawn Strickland, who along with their mother were part of Schmid's delegation to Auburn in 2015, enjoyed a trip to Soldier Field with their new friends.
DeAndre and DeShawn Strickland
"The boys' mother called me afterward just to tell me what gentlemen she thought they were," O'Grady says.
Looking at pictures from their night on the town, it's hard to tell who enjoyed the evening more.
"I'm just fortunate, because Auburn brought those kids into my life, I'm better for it," Eguae says.
Family members are there for one another in every season. In celebration and sorrow. In joy and grief.
In Chicago last year, 38 boys and girls were shot to death, according to the Chicago Tribune, including 11-year-old Takiya Holmes, a Schmid scholar who was shot in the head while sitting in a van with her family. Police charged a 19-year-old gang member with first-degree murder.
"It was a really rough time for our school community, for our scholars, for everyone involved," says Black, Schmid's principal.
To celebrate Takiya's life, Schmid's scholars and teachers released balloons outside the school following her funeral. Garrett was there to honor the memory of a friend he'd met during one of his visits.
"When I heard the news that Takiya Holmes was killed in a shooting, an innocent bystander, that broke my heart," he says. "Her opportunities were endless. I felt it was my duty to come back to the school and provide comfort to the students and the staff.
"To see a lot of the kids mourning, and some of the reactions of how tough they are, their resilience and their strength that comes from the environment they come from. It was eye-opening for me.
"Our impact from that one encounter that I did have with Takiya Holmes ended up an everlasting impact for me to always remember that tomorrow isn't promised, so take advantage of today."
'They live it'
Principal Black says Schmid is thriving, crediting Nosa and Justin for ensuring that the unlikely connection between Auburn and Schmid endures.
"Our relationship with Auburn is really, truly a connection," she says. "I appreciate Auburn for not being a one-touch organization. Auburn University has committed to these scholars. We are happy to be a part of the Auburn family, and of course, Auburn is always a part of the Schmid family."
O'Grady, the teacher who chose Auburn for her class to study, says she could go on and on about Eguae and Garrett's influence.
"Nosa and Justin do not simply recite the Creed, they live it on a daily basis," she says. "They are an extraordinary example of what it means to be an Auburn graduate. I feel so blessed that Auburn brought them into our lives and I am forever grateful for the impact they have on our scholars."
Eguae credits the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for inspiring him to make a difference.
"It's a constant reminder for me to always live bigger than myself, and I think that's what Martin Luther King stood for, and that's something that I continuously try to live by as I continue to live in this awesome city of Chicago," he says.
"We're all brought together by Auburn and we're all brought together by the love of people. These kids were taught about a school and they loved it. And it brought us all together."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer