The families of 30 Catholic school students enjoyed a brighter Christmas thanks to a team effort that included Marquette University basketball players.

Marquette Golden Eagle point guard Tyler Kolek, who is Catholic, said taking part in the Holiday Happiness shopping spree organized by SHARP Literacy was a way of “honoring God and giving back” by serving others.

Kolek and three other players helped a group of students from Messmer St. Mary do some Christmas shopping on a mid-December Saturday at the Bayshore Kohl’s. The children, ages 8-10, are enrolled in the SHARP Literacy program at their school.

SHARP partnered with Be the Difference NIL, which funded $150 gift cards that players then gave to each child, who also attended with parents and siblings. The children could buy gifts for themselves or family members.

Kolek, a junior from Rhode Island, said he welcomed the opportunity to give back and spend time with the very-excited children.

As a child, “I never had an opportunity like that,” Kolek said. He and teammates Oso Ighodaro, Kam Jones and Sean Jones took part through Be the Difference NIL, which helps players connect with community organizations such as SHARP.

Lynda Kohler, president/chief executive officer of SHARP Literacy, is a member of St. Jerome Parish in Oconomowoc and attended St. Peter Catholic School in Kenosha. “Growing up Catholic, we learned that giving back is so important.”

The spirit of giving came to life in many ways at the Holiday Happiness event, Kohler said. It was awesome to see the spirit of giving extended from the financial support of Be the Difference donors through the time the Marquette athletes spent with the children, and then from the children to their siblings and parents.

“That made it really special for me,” Kohler said.

The children look up to the players — literally and figuratively. The Marquette students are happy to answer questions about their athletic hopes but stress the importance of a good education as a foundation for their future, Kohler said.

Kohler is looking forward to expanding the partnership with Marquette athletes next year with involvement of players from other teams, including women’s basketball.

“The kids just feel really special knowing that the student athletes are taking time out of their busy schedules to spend time with them,” she said.

The Marquette men’s basketball program has had a long-term relationship with SHARP Literacy. “Reading with the Golden Eagles,” a program in which Marquette student-athletes meet and read with young learners in Milwaukee-area elementary schools, dates back to 2013.

Be the Difference NIL is a relatively new nonprofit collective that is dedicated to creating opportunities for athletes that positively contribute to the campus and community at large, while maintaining the commitment of Marquette University to make a difference in the world.

With community service being foundational to a Marquette University experience, Be the Difference NIL is working with nonprofit organizations and supporting community-minded events to positively impact the community while enabling personal growth with student-athletes committed to the collective.

In addition to SHARP Literacy, Be the Difference NIL is also in partnership with Cristo Rey Jesuit High School of Milwaukee, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee and All-In Milwaukee.

Marquette men’s basketball player Oso Ighodaro hands out gift cards to Messmer St. Mary students during a recent shopping spree organized by SHARP Literacy. (Submitted photo)