By Rob White
The COVID-19 pandemic drove Metropolitan State University of Denver student-athletes to change their training regimen this fall. And the results are adorable.
In early October, 33 Roadrunners trained with the Denver Public Library’s Read Aloud program to read virtually to children attending Denver’s Head Start early-childhood education centers.
While the program, which launched in 1988, was designed to help Denver children develop a love of books and prereading skills while promoting the use of Denver Public Libraries, it’s clear the student-athletes are getting a lot out of the experience as well.
“They are so cute, just the cutest little humans ever,” volleyball player Kayla White said. “We read a counting book, and they are super-smart. They were very engaging. As long as I asked them questions, they wanted to tell me everything about themselves.
“It’s been a great opportunity to do community service and to still have social distancing.”
MSU Denver student-athletes’ participation in the Read Aloud program shows the progress that University Athletics is making in its efforts to be an even bigger part of the Denver community, said first-year Athletics Director Todd Thurman. This fall, as the pandemic canceled or postponed sports seasons, student-athletes volunteered more than 700 hours at nonprofits such as Food for Thought Denver, Food Bank of the Rockies, Gold Crown Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, Project Angel Heart and Read Aloud.
The latter generated excitement among children eager to interact with college athletes, even over Zoom, said MSU Denver women’s tennis player Helena Steenberg.
“Obviously, after some time they lose their concentration. It’s fun to talk to them and try to understand what goes through their minds. I hope I’m contributing and helping,” she said.
Because he read to his young nephews, men’s soccer player Ian Oltman said he knew that reading to 3- and 4-year-olds can be a unique experience, so he found a unique way to connect.
“I told them that I was in college and that I was a college soccer player,” he said. “I don’t think they really understood what that meant, because I don’t think they really understood what college is. So I told them I’m in big-kid school, and they kind of understood it more.
“(Life) isn’t as fun for them right now,” he said, “so it’s a challenge to make it as fun as possible for them.”
Some MSU Denver student-athletes are also able to fill high-demand roles in the Read Aloud program as bilingual readers.
Men’s soccer player Jerry Gutierrez and women’s tennis player Gala Castello are among several Roadrunners who are reading in Spanish.
Gutierrez is equally comfortable speaking Spanish and English, having grown up in a Spanish-speaking household in California, and on the pitch he often communicates with his teammates in Spanish, he said.
“I’ve never actually shared stories in Spanish, but it has been worth it,” he said. “Three weeks in and I’ve read three different books. The kids are all very interactive and like listening to it. There’s been a lot of good songs that the teacher has helped me with.”
Castello is from Barcelona, Spain, and speaks Spanish as well as Catalan. When she read a book about manners to the children in Spanish, some words were lost in translation, she said.
“Maybe because of my accent – because they are more Mexican and I’m Spanish – the way I pronounce some words is a little different, and they don’t seem to always follow it,” she said. “But it’s a good experience to know that you are helping little kids.”
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