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Cocky's Reading Express

Gamecock Mascot Fights Illiteracy in South Carolina

A pirate’s haven, a mystery solved and the dream of playing in the big leagues were a natural part of Tommy Preston’s childhood. While being raised in the upstate of South Carolina, he was encouraged to read all kinds of books. But not every child is this lucky.

In fact, according the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 40 percent of South Carolina fourth-graders have below average reading levels.

So as an active member of USC’s student government, Tommy helped to establish Cocky’s Reading Express, a student-run initiative to combat illiteracy, especially for early readers. And leading the charge was Carolina’s beloved mascot, Cocky.

After our first trip, the request for visits came in rapidly,” recalled Tommy, now a local attorney. “At one point, I can remember having more than 100 invitations from schools, libraries, and literary events. That first year Cocky and USC student volunteers visited 20 schools around the state.”

Since those early days in 2005, the program has developed into a collaborative program of student government and the South Carolina Center for Children’s Book and Literacy (SCCBL), an outreach initiative of the School of Library and Information Science. Cocky and members of the USC community have visited every corner of the state, giving more than 50,000 books to kindergarteners, first- and second-graders.

At each event, the feathers fly as volunteers read to the kids. Of course, Cocky isn’t able to read aloud, but his energetic interpretations of the “’The Little Red Hen’ and other childhood favorites could win awards,” Tommy explains. ”In addition to receiving a free book, each child promises to read a book a day.”

Since those early days in 2005, the program has developed into a collaborative program of student government and the South Carolina Center for Children’s Book and Literacy (SCCBL), an outreach initiative of the School of Library and Information Science. Cocky and members of the USC community have visited every corner of the state,

The program has expanded to include information about nutrition and health as well as financial matters, explains Kim Jeffcoat, the executive director of SCCCBL. “We offer a full spectrum of programs that range from ones for elementary school, public libraries and special populations such as the School for the Deaf and Blind to ones that address special topics such as financial and nutrition literacy.”

The program has received support from Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, BP America, South Carolina Bank and Trust and others.

I’ve been overwhelmed by the support that Cocky’s Reading Express has received from organizations and individuals around the state,” added Tommy. “I truly believe that people are seeing the impact that our program is having on the state.”

And if just one child leaves a Cocky Reading Express event and is able to become a princess, or a pirate, after lights out, Tommy will sleep a little better.

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