Written by Mark Bair for Evangel Magazine Fall 2021
Maurice Downey is passionate about teaching at Weller Elementary in Springfield, Missouri, the very school he attended when his life was full of struggle and uncertainty. But Downey is more than a teacher. He helps young people imagine their futures in a way they could not on their own. He knows the power of encouragement from personal experience. For every obstacle thrown in his path, there was a loving mentor who came along to offer hope to a struggling kid.
Downey graduated from Evangel in the fall of 2020 with a degree in Elementary Education. But that was not his initial plan. Nor was Evangel where he started. Though recruited and offered an athletic scholarship from Evangel, Downey wanted to get away from Springfield. For nearly three years, he attended Southern Baptist University. Throughout that time, coaches from the football team kept in touch.
“They were persistent. I would get texts from Coach Sands asking me if I changed my mind. I came to a point where I longed to be valued. So, I couldn’t think of a better place than with the guy who’d been hitting me up since high school.”
Upon transferring to Evangel, the football team immediately welcomed Downey. “I felt as if I’d been there since I was a freshman. It was ridiculous in a great way.”
Since high school, Downey had been a Type I diabetic with no health insurance. He took over-the-counter insulin, which was neither cheap nor adequate. Chuck Hepola (Coach “Hep”) inquired about his health, so Downey went to a doctor’s office but walked out in embarrassment when asked about his insurance.
“Coach Hep reassured me, ‘Everything’s fine, man. We got you. There’s a program we found with CoxHealth.’”
Downey ended up getting the insulin he needed free for two years, which lasted until he was hired at Weller. “Now I have insurance. It’s God. I can’t put it any other way. The Evangel coaching staff is not just recruiting football players. They are helping young men become successful citizens. I really believe that.”
When he transferred to Evangel, Downey planned to teach at the high school level. But his adviser, Dr. Fred Drake encouraged him to do a classroom observation at the elementary school level.
Initially, Downey was skeptical. “But I tried it and loved it. I’ve never looked back.”
Downey appreciates how well Evangel prepared him as he’s traded stories with peers from other colleges. “The Education Department at Evangel is amazing. They gave us hands-on training long before graduating. Before I did my student teaching, I had four or five practicums where I was able to observe a professional educator in action.”
In his final semester, at the height of the pandemic, Downey was student teaching at Weller Elementary, the same school he attended in the early 2000s. Connecting with students virtually was a challenge, but one that he embraced.
Downey’s ability to connect with his students was recognized, and he was hired on full-time as a fourth-grade teacher at Weller in November 2020.
“I had my own class a week or so before I graduated. Evangel prepared me so well. I felt like I’d been teaching for a few years already.”
Weller is one of the most ethnically diverse schools in Springfield and a Title I school, which means a large majority of the students live at or below poverty levels. “As teachers, we’re presented with tons of challenges, but honestly, I’m having a blast. It’s fun coming in every day to try and connect with kiddos.”
One of Downey’s former teachers sent him an album of photos and videos from the year he was in fourth grade. “When I showed my kids, they ate it up. They see me as a guy who came from the same position they’re in.”
Evangel students and faculty give Downey a hand at Weller. Some athletes volunteer as reading buddies, while others come and play with the kids at recess. “The kids love it, and sometimes they get to attend a college game.”
Downey remembers seeing Evangel’s campus as a child, which is practically just across the street from Weller. “Evangel seemed like foreign territory to me, and I never dreamed I’d have anything to do with it. Now I see a lot of my kids walking around in Evangel attire, and that just makes me happy.”
Downey consistently refers to people coming alongside him and seeing his potential. “I didn’t know what success was or what success looked like. Somebody had to paint that picture for me. I knew I could be a good athlete, but nobody cast a vision that I could be leading a classroom—until I got to Evangel. That’s what I want to do for my kids.”
Downey is deeply thankful for his mother, Anna, and her example. As a single mother, she struggled but never gave up on her education. “I want to give a shout-out to my momma. I love her to death, and she’s done so much for me.”
Downey looks to the future with high hopes. “I want to affect as many kids as I can in my career, and I want to be invited to their weddings one day.”
“I have a very diverse class, so building comradery is sometimes a challenge. But these kids build me up. Sure, I’m tired at the end of the day, but I love coming to work. I feel like I made it. I got here.”
Downey has become a teacher in a very different way than he once envisioned. In his classroom, he passes on important knowledge week after week. But more than knowledge, Downey imparts hope. And he knows that hope is often the one thing needed to succeed.