Vandal basketball kicks off Readers as Leaders
Courtesy: Idaho Athletic Media Relations
          Release: 01/08/2010
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Redshirt freshman Kyle Barone talks to local elementary school students about his favorite childhood book.
View larger Courtesy: Idaho Athletic Media Relations

Redshirt freshman Kyle Barone talks to local elementary school students about his favorite childhood book.

MOSCOW, Idaho - For the second year in a row, the Idaho men's basketball team kicked off the highly successful "Readers as Leaders" program in local elementary schools.

Head coach Don Verlin and the rest of the Idaho team and coaching staff visited five schools this week to promote the "Readers as Leaders" program, which aims to build reading skills and enhance student interest in reading at an early age.

Verlin talked to the students about listening to parents and teachers, and then the Idaho players talked about their most influential figures and their favorite books to read while they were growing up.

Program reading goals are established by teachers, and students earn rewards as they achieve those goals. One such reward is the Readers as Leaders t-shirt, which the students can wear for free admittance to any home Idaho men's basketball game for the 2010 season. Their accompanying parents can purchase tickets starting at $10.

Saturday's game against Louisiana Tech is the designated 'Readers as Leaders Game' and accompanying adults can purchase their tickets for just $5.

After the program's huge success in 2009, it was an easy decision for the basketball team and the schools to carry it on again in 2010. Last year, the school distributed 1400 shirts to students in the program and those shirts became a mainstay at Idaho home games throughout the season.

"Last year, we had 800 kids show up at the Boise State game and we were really kind of overwhelmed at the time," Kindergarten teacher Jodi Donaldson said. "We thought, 'Oh wow, this has really made a huge impact on the kids.' They are excited about being Reader Leaders."

For the Idaho players, the personal impact is also just as significant. Senior Kashif Watson likened the experience to memories he had as an elementary school student.

"I remember when we were little, we always looked up to the guys who came back to the elementary schools and talked to us about it," Watson said. "It put a huge smile on my face, because you never think that it would be you. The kids looking up to you like that is humbling and it's a very good feeling to have."

Verlin also has a personal connection to the program, since his daughter takes part in it. With his responsibilities as 'Coach' and 'Dad', Verlin said he has had the advantage of seeing both sides of the program.

"At my house we have to read every night, so I go through the same thing a lot of parents go through," Verlin said. "After we did the Readers as Leaders program, my daughter was a lot more fired up. I read for an hour last night with her and usually it's about 30 minutes."

What started as a community service project quickly turned into something much bigger, according to Donaldson.

"After the big game (last year), I had players come back into my classroom to volunteer, read to the kids and hang out with the kids," Donaldson said. "The other thing that happened that I didn't really think about was that those students inspired the players to know that they really are part of this community.

"They represent a bigger picture than just going out there and playing basketball."

Verlin echoed Donaldson's sentiments and said that when the staff was looking for a service program, they wanted to create a bridge between Idaho athletics and the local community.

"One thing that I think is very important when you're a college athlete is to do a selfless thing," Verlin said. "I don't think you get a better feeling in the world than when you go help somebody.

"I think what they saw yesterday was they remembered the people who helped them, and then they felt good because they were helping people."

One of the keys to the impact of the program, Donaldson said, was the number of parallels between athletic and academic success.

"They really go together so well, because it's about setting goals, making a commitment to be a hard worker, being motivated every day and doing your best," Donaldson said. "Each teacher in the school sets individual goals for the kids, just as coaches set individual goals for their players, and success comes from hard work."

The Idaho basketball team and the local schools have also expanded the program this year and anticipate it will reach even more area students. The program also added extra incentives for achieving higher reading goals, as well as for attendance at Idaho games.

The program introduced the Silver and Gold Reader Awards this year for those students who meet the higher reading goals established by their teachers. These students earn certificates to honor their achievements, as well as cards for raffle drawings at the end of the year.

Verlin and Donaldson both also pointed out that the program was made possible by Pickard Orthodontics, which generously donated the shirts for the students.

Idaho senior Brandon Wiley leads the students in the Idaho fight song.

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