Appalachian alum builds boys’ confidence, character and strength through Xcel2Fitness after-school program

  • Boys participate in a challenge during the Xcel2Fitness after-school program designed by Stephen Vaughn ’05, who "lives like he means it." Photo submitted

As a physical education teacher, Stephen Vaughn ’05 had watched one of his students struggle with anger. He never knew when the explosions would come, but they inevitably did.

Vaughn, whose professors at Appalachian State University had preached the power of physical education to transform lives, tried to reach the boy with encouraging words, but he wasn’t sure he was helping. One day, they were sitting on a bench talking and the boy said, “I don’t have a father.”

“I don’t either,” Vaughn told him.

The boy collapsed into Vaughn’s arms crying.

Such moments get to the heart of what Xcel2Fitness (X2F), a nonprofit that offers an after-school fitness program for boys in the third through fifth grades, is about. Vaughn, the founder of the organization, channeled his own grief over the loss of his father to create a program that uses the fundamentals of fitness to build character in boys and provide them with guidance and strong role models.

X2F began as a pilot program at three schools in the Charlotte area in 2011. Today, over 5,000 boys in eight states have participated.

Jason Pavelchak, a 2003 Appalachian graduate with a degree in elementary education, was a coach at one of the pilot schools. He officially joined X2F in 2016 as vice president of operations and has helped Vaughn refine the curriculum.

“We know that for third and fifth grade boys, they’re not going to know their life’s calling,” Pavelchak said. “This is about how to get on a path and stay on a path. It’s having the right people to support you, along with grit and perseverance.”

A different model, designed to engage and inspire

Though X2F has a serious purpose, its activities are far from the old school, whistle-blowing drills and earnest lectures employed by generations of coaches.

Vaughn taught physical education at Wingate Elementary in 2008 when he first saw the power of combining fun and fitness.

He was looking for a way to excite his students about fitness when he had the custodial staff drill bolts in the wall 20 feet from the floor and he hung 10 hula hoops from ropes strung across the gym. He created games where the students threw bean bags through the hoops for points. The excitement generated in his classroom and through an after-school program he developed laid the groundwork for what would eventually become X2F.

“It transformed my classroom,” he said. “Some of the kids were shy. That year I started realizing that a smile can generate participation. Participation brings improved performance. Confidence follows. That can change their lives.”

Vaughn saw that he’d been given a chance to practice the principles that his Appalachian professors in the physical education program had instilled in him. (Vaughn’s major is now called Health and Physical Education, K-12.) Drs. Robert McKethan, Scott Townsend, Michael Kernodle and Derek Mohr stretched the boundaries of what Vaughn had thought of as physical fitness, he said.

“They were talking about how to get students engaged and make an impact on their lives,” he said. “I still have the notes from some of those classes that are still very fresh in my mind.”

As he continued to teach and develop the curriculum for X2F, Vaughn became aware of how much anger the boys he taught carried.

“Boys would default to anger quicker than girls,” he said. “There was so much brokenness, but the kids were starving to be led.”

A loss, a passion and a path

Vaughn’s efforts to connect with his students led him to examine his own grief at losing his father to cancer in 2006. Vaughn had grown up in Albemarle, where his father, the Rev. Ronnie Vaughn, was pastor of Centerview Baptist Church.

“I think one of the biggest lessons he was able to pass down to me was the understanding that you shouldn’t try to be someone else,” he said. “He wanted me to recognize that the name I’d been given has weight and that I needed to carry it throughout my life and leave something to be proud of.

“It’s crazy how pain can direct you,” he said. “My dad’s passing fueled a passion in me to make an impact in boys’ lives.”

By 2011, he was ready to launch X2F with a three-school pilot program in the Charlotte area. Working with such inexpensive equipment as pool noodles, tennis balls and piping, he created games that were fun, fast-moving and could be adapted to any environment.

Amelie Schoel’s son, Alexander, took part in X2F as a fourth- and fifth-grader at Antioch Elementary School.

She was looking for something that would allow him to be active during the week, while her husband traveled. The program also gave her son a place to learn to handle his emotions.

“Society subliminally tells boys, ‘Don’t cry. You can’t be soft. You can’t be weak,’” she said. “This program gave some guidance and framework to talk to boys using verbiage and emotions they could understand.”

As word of the program spread, 16 schools – some as far away as Arkansas – began using X2F. Vaughn could see possibilities for developing the program further. Named a Teacher of the Year in 2013 and at the height of his teaching career, he one day found himself keying in on the messages the students in his classes had posted on the Dream Wall, where they shared their goals.

“They weren’t paying attention to the obstacles. They were only thinking about what they wanted to be,” he said. “It hit me while I was standing there. I was holding onto a safety net that I had to let go of. The only true way for them to see the power of what I was telling them was for them to see me do what I’d been telling them to do.”

He finished out the school year and then turned in his resignation so that he could devote himself to X2F full time.

Like the boys he tries to reach, Vaughn has set lofty goals for the program. He’d like to be in all 50 states over the next 15 years.

“What is the ultimate thing I can give them? To believe in themselves and chase a dream,” he said. “Through the X2F experience I want them to know that they have greatness inside of them and it’s worth fighting for.”

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