By Auburn Larson, Current Staff
Anne Rieke, on the cusp of graduating from West Bend East High School, never expected to be sent back to elementary school.
The idea belonged to Dennis Ziegler, East’s athletic director. Ziegler recently implemented a new program which involves East athletes reading books to elementary school students. Every Friday afternoon, six East athletes go to a local elementary school and read to an assigned class. Ziegler hopes that the interaction between East athletes and younger students will help create a stronger culture for West Bend academics and athletics.
“It was so much fun to get to spend time with the kids,” said Rieke, an East tennis player. “Growing up, I always admired the high school athletes, and now it’s really cool that I get to be that role model for someone else.”
Logan Cunningham, a four-sport East athlete, had the chance to read at Decorah Elementary School and had a very positive experience.
“I think most kids view athletes just for the sports that they play, but with the reading program, it emphasizes the student part of student-athlete,” Cunningham said. “This reading program also gives the athletes a chance to connect with the future of East athletics, and show what being an East student athlete is all about.”
Ziegler brought this idea to West Bend from Valley City State University, where he previously served as the head football coach.
“At Valley City State University, we as a coaching staff did it as our team community service project,” Ziegler said. “Then in my last district I got together with the head football coach and we did it as only a football team, and we sent the players down to elementary schools to read on a Friday.”
Ziegler has been involved in service projects like this one for more than 10 years. He says that it is something that has just stuck with him. He also believes that this program benefits the athletes as much as the kids.
“It allows the athletes to serve as bigger role models to the younger kids,” Ziegler said. “It also lets the athletes show the younger kids how important reading actually is, and reminds the athletes that they can have such a huge influence on the youth in West Bend.”
Since arriving in West Bend, Ziegler has been very adamant about changing the culture of East athletics. By including people of all ages he hopes to help East athletics grow in fanfare and pride, and create more connections throughout the community.
“This will overall create collaboration in the district, and it also lets us relay what our mission is to those younger kids,” Ziegler said. “Doing things like this with the youth will hopefully make those youth kids want to be a part of the East athletic programs when they get to high school.”
There has been a very positive response to Ziegler’s new program. He says that all of the teachers, principals and the participating elementary schools have been very helpful and excited about the program. Students have also been very enthusiastic about the project.
“After the first week I actually had many (athletes) coming to me asking if they could go read, which was very encouraging to see,” Ziegler said.
East athletes have been dedicated to the weekly readings and have had a lot of fun in doing so. They have also had the chance to play kickball, Simon Says, and tetherball with the kids at recess.
Because of the overwhelmingly positive feedback, Ziegler hopes that he will able to continue the weekly readings and possibly expand into more subjects in upcoming years.
(Top image: East seniors Jason Myrick and Sam Scherzer read to students at Decorah Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Dennis Ziegler.)