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Nov. 3, 2003

CHARLOTTESVILLE – If the recent events in professional sports have taught us anything, it’s that athletes are role models on and off the field. Athletes on all levels of elite play, from college, to the Olympics, to the pros, must be aware at all times that their actions are being watched and often imitated by thousands, if not millions, of children. It is one thing for a child to model the behavior of an elite athlete in sport, but the story changes when a child decides to be like an athlete in all aspects of life.

The skills of a role model are largely learned through experience, not in a classroom. With the help of Wachovia and the guidance of the UVA Athletic Department, Cavalier student athletes are learning first-hand what it means to be an athletic role model on an elite level. Through Wachovia’s Reading First initiative, which was created in 1997, student-athletes travel to local elementary schools and read aloud to young children.

Reading First promotes childhood literacy through the reading and donation of books to classroom libraries. The program relies on the foundation of effective learning and development in children before the age of seven, which has been proven to greatly affect success in all aspects of life. Reading First is designed to instill a love of reading and a can-do spirit among young children. If a child sees that his or her role model enjoys reading, then the child will want to read too.

Cavalier swimmer Ryan Mooney attests to the importance of the Wachovia program.

“Wachovia has a lot of available resources, and the fact that they use those resources to give back to educating the young community members is awesome.”

For Ryan, it isn’t just about the duty as a student-athlete role model.

“I get the opportunity to try and influence a kid’s life in a positive manner, and the uplifting feeling that goes along with it. It makes your day that much better when you see that the kids are really listening to what you have to say.”

In addition, Ryan acknowledges the long-term effects of reading to children.

“It is my hope that at least one child who wasn’t turned onto reading before is now, or that one child who is curious about learning new things now knows an outlet for satisfying that curiosity exists in reading.”

Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage is also participating in the Reading First program.

“What I took away from the experience,” explains Craig, “was how little things that take so little of our time mean such a big difference in the lives of young people. Programs that promote the joy of reading are most important for children. I hope they understand the idea that reading is a fundamental; just like we practice fundamentals in sports that help us perform better, these students can learn that reading is a fundamental that will help them their entire lifetime.”

The importance of two prominent community leaders, UVA and Wachovia, to be involved in this effort is crucial. Craig agrees, “It is important because we can show young people how much we can function like teams and partners. For Wachovia to take the lead on this project and connect reading with our student-athletes shows young people how organizations work together in their behalf. Wachovia is a valuable team member and partner of UVA Athletics, and they’ve shown leadership in demonstrating the value of reading.”

The minds of young children can be seen as a ball of clay. Every experience and every interaction they have as they mature can greatly influence their lives in the future. What the UVA Athletic Department, student-athletes, and Wachovia have done is an incredibly bold and caring step. They have made an impression in the lives of young children. They have given them something that will last forever-the gift of reading.

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