MINNEAPOLIS -- At 22 years old, it wasn't long ago that Matt Dumba was sitting in a classroom, distracted by his own dreams of reaching the NHL.
When asked by teachers what he wanted to do when he grew up, Dumba always answered with the same thing: Play hockey.
Now living out his dream as a defenseman for the Wild, Dumba is giving back to kids at Green Central Park Community School, by donating his time and money to Athletes Committed to Educating Students (ACES), a group that works primarily with inner-city children at 11 different locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The primary objective of ACES is to help kids succeed in life after high school by developing skills that will assist them in finding a career. The program serves low income students that don't have the opportunities kids may have in a more suburban environment.
Developing those skills starts young, as Dumba met with fourth and fifth graders on Monday. He listened to them share personal goals for the coming weeks, everything from improving their handwriting skills to learning more about different places around the world.
After that, Dumba told the kids his story about growing up in Calgary and idolizing former Flames captain Jarome Iginla and one day hoping to play pro hockey. Dumba also answered questions and signed autographs, promising to come back and visit again soon.
Much of the classroom skills taught by the program's instructors revolve around math skills. Having professional athletes in the classroom shows kids that it's possible to achieve their dreams if they work hard and pursue their goals.
"They believe that something is possible beyond the eighth grade and they believe in themselves in a way they didn't before," said Christina Saunders, the executive director of ACES. "Someone who is famous and takes the time to come here and shows he's invested in them ... their self-worth goes up because somebody pretty big time is telling them that they are worth it.
"They come in and talk to the kids about the same things that we are talking to them about. But it means a little bit more coming from a hockey player like Matt than it does coming from a teacher, or a tutor or a parent."
In addition to visiting with the kids, Dumba and Minnesota Vikings punter Jeff Locke, together with Minnesota United FC goaltender Steward Ceus and Minnesota Lynx forward Lindsay Whalen, collectively matched $24,000 in donations to ACES on Give to the Max Day in November.
"Everyone has that soft spot [for helping kids]," Dumba said. "Just today, I had only met the kids for 40 minutes or so and the relationship that you create with them, how excited they were to see me, high fives and hugs on the way out. It's awesome to see the smiles on their faces."
Saunders said having a hockey player into the classroom setting is rather uncommon. While young kids around the state often begin playing hockey as young as three or four-years old, the sport is still growing in popularity with inner-city youth, who often don't experience it until they are at least 10 or 11 years old.
Dumba's involvement with ACES will hopefully help to eliminate the academic achievement gap, which in Minnesota, is among the worst in the nation.
It starts with a simple message from him to the kids about finding a dream, then pursuing it.
"You have to work hard, set goals and challenge yourself," Saunders said. "That's generally what we try and accomplish."
To learn more about ACES and how you can help, including more information on its All-Star Evening 2017, to be held at U.S. Bank Stadium in May, visit https://www.ACES4kids.org.