Joe Walsh has several reasons to support the Boston public schools. He and his two sons attended Boston schools. His wife taught in the school system for many years. And as BU’s executive director of community relations, Walsh is familiar with the University program that awards full scholarships to as many as 25 Boston public school graduates every year.
Walsh knows that those scholarships go to only the city’s top public school students, which is why he started a holiday reading program 15 years ago. The idea of the program is to encourage a love of reading in young children by having BU athletes visit Boston elementary schools and read to students during fall finals week. What started with just members of the two soccer teams has grown into an event that now sends an average of 300 athletes to read to some 1,000 students citywide before Christmas.
The athletes come bearing gifts as well—a paperback book and a pencil for every student and a copy of a hardcover classic and a stuffed animal for their classroom. Even Terrier mascot Rhett makes an occasional appearance.
The program has been a big hit among athletes. “We’ve had to turn them away in the past,” says event co-organizer Leo Paré, athletics department senior staff assistant for marketing and promotion.
Early last week, dozens of athletes crowded the Case Center entryway awaiting red passenger vans to usher them to nearby elementary schools. They wore Boston University athletics gear and stood together by team—women’s soccer, softball, and lacrosse here, field hockey, dance, and cheerleading over there. Walsh and Paré wished them good luck before they left to fan out across the city.
Two vans crammed with athletes and Rhett headed east to Chinatown’s Josiah Quincy School. They passed through the school office—bedecked with a Chinese dragon, a Christmas tree, and a cardboard cutout of President Barack Obama—and up a flight of steps to an open floor where several classrooms were laid out side-by-side, divided by cubicle-like partitions.
A group of women’s softball players filed into Tara McDonough’s second grade classroom.
“We have some volunteers from Boston University to do some reading with us,” McDonough announced. “Can you say good morning?”
“Good morning!” shouted the class in unison.
“We’re from BU,” said Erica Casacci (CAS’12). “Do you know where that is?”
“My dad works there,” one little boy called out. Another said the same.
“That’s actually true,” McDonough said with a smile.
After short introductions, the athletes and second graders divided into four groups and spread out among worn reading rugs and a knee-high table. All the students received a copy of Henry and Mudge under the Yellow Moon, one of a popular series of books about a boy and his dog. The students took turns reading aloud, some barely audible. Others lisped through gaps left by missing baby teeth. Once they had finished the book, conversation turned to the everyday, and the kids opened up about their pets back home, favorite sports, and which subjects they like best.
At that point, Rhett ambled into the classroom. One girl covered her eyes. A boy jumped up to slap the mascot a high five. And others rushed to poke his nose and pat his black-and-white fur.
“Excuse me,” McDonough said authoritatively. “Bodies in control. You wait your turn to say hi.”
“Is Rhett real?” asked Shanell Christmas.
“No, he’s a guy in a costume,” Christopher Dech said matter-of-factly.
That didn’t seem to matter as they lined up to touch Rhett’s hand, ask him questions like, “How big is your foot?” and dance alongside him.
With reading officially over, Casacci handed McDonough their class gifts: a hardcover copy of Milo and the Magical Stones—a moral tale about a community of mice and its decision about whether or not to respect the environment—and a small teddy bear wearing BU gear.
The softball players milled outside the classroom waiting for the other athletes to finish. Most had volunteered before in the holiday reading program and were impressed by the elementary students’ reading skills and behavior.
What was the best part of their expedition? Alyssa Barsanti (SAR’14) said it was the moment when students reading with her finished their book and had one question: “What else can we read now?”