Saluki athletes encourage area children to ‘just read’

By Gus Bode

Grinning slightly, sophomore Kelsey Kinsella watched as three young students huddled intently around a book the SIU swimmer was supposed to be reading to them.

For many of the young students, getting to read with a local college athlete is the highlight of their day.

The Missouri Valley Conference’s Just Read program has been bringing student-athletes to area schools since 1996 to make moments like this happen.

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The program involves student-athletes reading books to children and stresses the importance of reading at an early age.

The student-athletes not only emphasize the importance of reading for school, but also as a hobby. At the same time, MVC student-athletes are used as positive role models. For SIU, reaching out to young students in the community is nothing new.

SIU had its own reading program called Reading with the Dawgs until 1996 when the MVC and State Farm Insurance teamed up to bring the current program to life. State Farm’s involvement as a sponsor made it possible to hand out bookmarks and pencils to the children.

The program is voluntary, but according to Kristina Therriault, the academic coordinator for SIU athletics, anywhere from 40 to 50 student-athletes from all sports participate in the monthly outings to local schools.

The first visit of the year occurred Sept. 22 at Giant City Elementary School, and so many student-athletes participated that there weren’t enough classrooms for everyone.

Instead of having two student-athletes read to an entire class, one athlete was able to read to four children. The more personal interaction might actually have been better, as Therriault said things went extremely well.

“I think sometimes they have more fun than the young students,” Therriault said, referring to the student-athletes.

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Kinsella enjoyed revisiting her childhood favorites such as “The Berenstein Bears” with a group of second and third graders. A dietetics major, Kinsella once considered education as a career choice.

“It was a lot of fun,” Kinsella said. “The kids actually read to us a lot of the time.”

While children in elementary school are the primary focus of the program, Therriault said if they visit a school with younger or older children, they attempt to read to as many classrooms as possible.

The MVC sends out a list of suggested books to be read, but Therriault said when they arrive at the schools the children have usually already picked out their favorites.

To represent as many sports as possible and to also involve the greatest amount of student-athletes, schedules of the athletes are looked at so a diverse group can attend the schools. This reflects the racial diversity of the children at the schools. Being able to relate to the student-athletes makes their impact on the children even more lasting.

Therriault said all the student-athletes, regardless of their majors, enjoy interacting with the children.

“They are the ones who make this program successful,” Therriault said. “The students are excited to see them and listen to what they have to say.”

Kinsella said the children were extremely interested in the athletes and their sports. Between questions from the students and time spent reading, Kinsella was almost late to class.

“It was a great experience,” Kinsella said. “I’ll definitely do it again.”

The program is so successful that many schools ask to have the Just Read program come back time and time again. Unfortunately, only so many schools can be visited in a year.

Jane Fulton, the assistant athletics director for Illinois State University, has encountered similar requests from schools in the Bloomington-Normal area.

“Of all the community activities we take part in, the reading program is the favorite of the student-athletes,” Fulton said. “We’ve been very well received.”

The children aren’t the only people to benefit from the Just Read Program.

Both Therriault and Fulton said it is a great opportunity for student-athletes to represent their schools and define what a true student-athlete is. According to Kinsella, that means being dedicated to sports and academic responsibilities.

Also, they have the chance to give back to the community.

“We are constantly asking for support from our community,” Therriault said. “I think it’s important for us to get out and support them as well.”

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