By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun
7:13 p.m. EDT, October 19, 2010
The usual stars of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore — the wild cats, hulking elephants and graceful cranes whose habitats are re-created on the grounds — lost some of the spotlight Tuesday to the players, cheerleaders and mascot of the Baltimore Ravens, as the team and zoo played host to about 120 local schoolchildren for an annual community service event.
Tuesday was the NFL/United Way's annual "Hometown Huddle," a leaguewide day of service, which this year is focused on combating childhood obesity by getting kids to be more active.
The fourth- and fifth-graders from City Springs Elementary School were invited by the Ravens to participate in the day's event, based on the CBS reality show "The Amazing Race," which features pairs competing in a race around the world. The kids made their way in the morning to various stations set up around the zoo's grounds, where they were challenged to waddle like penguins, build a nest in the zoo aviary, and mimic a crane's mating dance.
Melanie LeGrande, the Ravens' director of community relations, said she chose City Springs after interacting with principal Rhonda Richetta and a group of students in September. The team hosted the group at a home game as part of its Honor Rows program, which recognizes youth groups doing community service work.
"We saw how well-behaved the kids were," LeGrande said, which led her to choose them for the day's event.
The students returned to their school in the early afternoon, where Richetta said they were eagerly showing her their new athletic sneakers — provided by Under Armour, an event sponsor — and telling her all they had learned. Richetta said just being picked up by the coach buses sent by the team was a treat for the youngsters.
"Being treated like they're special is a really good feeling for them," Richetta said. "It makes them love to come to school; it makes them recognize that doing the right thing and being respectful and being motivated to come to school pays off."
The students were guided through the exhibits by about 70 volunteers organized by the United Way.
The group led by Ravens wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was one of the first to finish the race, which was followed by a picnic lunch. Houshmandzadeh said he enjoyed the scavenger hunt nature of the event, which led kids from station to station via deciphered clues.
"You can interact with the kids, and I like doing that," he said.
Houshmandzadeh, tight end Edgar Jones, Ravens cheerleaders and mascot Poe posed for pictures and signed autographs for the students and regular zoo patrons.
Upon finishing the race, City Springs fifth-graders Malik McNeely, 11, and Da'juan Settles, 12, reflected on the day's lessons in between collecting autographs. The two boys had gotten into a tiff during the race but had worked it out.
"We worked together, and we were positive," McNeely said.