Pitt players read to Avonworth students


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In honor of Read Across America Day and Dr. Seuss’ birthday, nearly two dozen University of Pittsburgh football players, cheerleaders, dancers and a mascot descended upon Avonworth Elementary School on Friday to read to the students.

It was Melissa Haering's idea to invite the players for Read Across America Day last year. She is a Title 1 reading specialist at the school and also is married to Pitt Panthers’ special teams coach, Chris Haering.

This year, Mrs. Haering got additional help from the players in recruiting more volunteers, and the Read Across America collaboration between the Pitt Panthers and Avonworth Elementary is on its way to becoming a tradition.

“Those players who came last year told everyone how much fun it was, so we didn’t have any problem getting volunteers this year,” said Mrs. Haering, of Marshall. Some of the Pitt students got permission from their professors to miss class for the event. “Some of them are able to get credit for community service for being here.”

“I thought that doing this would be rewarding, but I’m surprised to see how excited the kids are,” said dancer Hilary Nickels, 21, of Herminie after she read and answered questions from students in Jeff Dzubinski's kindergarten class. A junior at Pitt, Ms. Nickels is majoring in education. She said she learned a valuable lesson after spending a few hours with the students. “I now realize how important it is for me to be the person these kids expect me to be. I’m representing Pitt, and this is an opportunity to show them that college is about making good choices.”

Sophomore J.P. Holtz, 20, of Shaler volunteered for the event last year and he, too, became more aware that he is a role model. “I remember when I was a kid, and it would have been awesome to meet an actual football player,” said Mr. Holtz, adding that he intends to come back to Avonworth again. “I know they look up to me, and this means that I can’t mess around and get into trouble. I have to be a good role model. I’d like to do this every year that I’m in college and maybe even afterwards.”

Each grade level from K through 5 selected a theme, and the athletes read books related to those themes to each homeroom. Team members also participated in an interactive game of Jeopardy! in the school’s gym.

Mr. Holtz is majoring in administrative justice and said he wants to play professional football after graduation. “Playing football for Pitt is like having a job and going to school at the same time,” he told the kindergartners, whose theme was teamwork. “You have to manage your time. And you have to go to practice, because if you don’t, the whole team will get in trouble.”

Superintendent Thomas Ralston was thrilled that the Pitt players spoke to the students about their commitment to education. “Our kids look up to these guys as role models, especially the boys,” he said, noting that the addition of dancers and cheerleaders was positive for the girls. “The younger kids are drawn to the mascot.”

Volunteer parent Dawn Ermlich said her 6-year-old daughter, Grace, was thrilled that Pitt players would be visiting her school. “She wore her Pitt shirt today and has started talking about college,” Ms. Ermlich said. “Grace loves being read to, but having a football player and a dancer read to her? She’s to the moon and back!”

Fifth-grader Grace Bradley, 10, wants to be a basketball player when she gets older, and the athletes' visit was an eye-opening experience for her. “I didn’t realize how important school is if you want to play sports,” she said after hearing players read a book to her homeroom about dedication. “Now I understand that if I don’t get good grades, I can’t play basketball. I will have to show a lot of dedication.”

Scott Miller, assistant elementary school principal, said, “Our kids are getting a powerful message from their peers that school and reading are crucial to success.” He credited Mrs. Haering and the school’s other Title 1 reading teachers, Denise Hauser and Joanna Ferencz, for organizing “a rewarding community event.”

“Some people think we just play football,” said junior Mark Giubilato, 23, of Philadelphia, noting that he always makes time to read, even for pleasure. “But we’re not just athletes; we are student athletes. At the end of the day, education is more important than playing football because it’s something you can keep forever.”


Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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