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Going the extra mile for literacy

Fifteen years into his mission to grow early childhood literacy in South Carolina, Cocky is proving he’s more than a mascot. 

What started as a student-led winter break program has mushroomed into a full-time enterprise supported by iSchool staff and funded through corporate and private donations and grants. 

Although the Cocky’s Reading Express program has evolved, familiar components remain: volunteer readers from the university or local community read to children from underserved populations before the guest of honor — Cocky! — surprises the kids by acting out stories. Children then receive a free brand-new book of their own and promise Cocky they will read. 

“Cocky is the best ambassador you could have,” says Christine Shelek, director of the South Carolina Center for Community Literacy. “His connection with the kids is instant. Their faces light up when he comes out. This program is a phenomenal example of how the iSchool is working on the ground in our state to improve early childhood literacy and better prepare South Carolina’s workforce.” 

An expanded reach

Now the program is expanding its reach, hosting family nights at schools, libraries and community centers. The events include dinner, tips for parents about how to encourage and nurture young readers and, of course, Cocky.

“We realized we could make a bigger impact if we could bring the whole family into the program,” Shelek says. “We had 600 people show up on our first family night in Calhoun County. We were so excited that it worked.” 

Cocky also tackles other aspects of literacy where South Carolina children may lag, Shelek says. To promote dental literacy, volunteers might read a book about taking care of your teeth before Cocky appears with a giant toothbrush. 

The program also teaches environmental literacy through recycling and tower gardens gifted to the school for students to tend. First lady Patricia Moore-Pastides has even joined Cocky for cooking demonstrations to boost nutritional literacy. 

Workforce readiness

During a CRE program, each guest reader talks about the importance of reading in their career to show children that reading is needed for all types of work. 

Beyond readiness for young children, the program also provides job connections for college students interested in teaching careers. Shelek says school administrators often ask student volunteers to apply for positions at their school. 

Tristany Radford (2014 B.A., education) wanted to be a teacher since she was a child. Volunteering with CRE affirmed her decision — and helped her develop storytelling skills that she uses every day in her fourth-grade classroom at Camden Elementary School in Kershaw County.

“Even to this day, people compliment me on my reading voice and how I read to students, and I think it all stems from my time with Cocky’s Reading Express,” she says. “That’s where I really learned to use character voices and add emphasis to different words.” 

Shelek says some former student volunteers have lobbied their professional groups to sponsor CRE visits. “I am still in touch with students who were Cocky and students who were volunteers,” she says. “They are still passionate about the program and want to be involved.” 

On the road again

CRE school site visits ground to a halt in spring 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Knowing that children and parents were desperate for reading support, staff immediately transitioned to virtual story times posted on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Readers included College of Information and Communications alumna Leeza Gibbons as well as Dean Tom Reichert, current and former Cockys and program champions. 

CRE staff and volunteers began visiting daycare centers and libraries in summer 2021, and they are eager to restart school visits when conditions allow. 

“The pandemic was hard on everyone,” student volunteer James Smithwick says. “It didn’t matter if you got COVID or not. I couldn’t be more excited to get back to schools and make some people smile.” 

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