The scene: a little elementary school gym in the middle of Indiana. Kids file in, led by their teachers. Many teachers wear “Ball State Alumni” T-shirts. Most students are decked out in red to show their support for Ball State.

Shawn Sullivan, Ball State’s assistant athletic director for marketing and fan engagement, said he and other Ball State reps are here because they are proud of how well the Shenandoah Elementary students are doing with Charlie’s Reading Challenge.

He then directs their attention to four Ball State women’s volleyball players. After each athlete introduces herself, Mr. Sullivan asks them to share with the students the books they loved to read as kids. There was “Junie B. Jones.” There was “Amelia Bedelia.” From the students, there were nods of recognition and many happy faces.

After a bit more book discussion, Mr. Sullivan tells the kids that there’s one more special guest. Right on cue, Charlie Cardinal charges into the gym with high-fives for each student. Before the program finishes, each student learns the “Chirp! Chirp!” hand motion.

There’s also the strong hope they’ve learned a lifelong lesson in the value of reading.

An overwhelming response

Launched in the fall of 2016, Charlie’s Reading Challenge has proven to be a valuable supplement for area elementary school teachers and students. The program rewards students who read and also brings the Ball State brand to students and teachers across central Indiana.

Each student at a participating school is asked to read four books at his or her reading level and complete an assignment tied to the readings. Progress is tracked in each classroom using posters provided by Ball State Athletics. Participating schools also receive a challenge banner, and students who complete the program get two free tickets to a Ball State sporting event.

women's volleyball team meets kids at elementary school

Members of the women’s volleyball team meet and greet children participating in Charlie’s Reading Challenge at Shenandoah Elementary. The Middletown, Indiana, school was one of about 60 that participated in the fall 2017 program.

“The program began with one pilot school and jumped to about 20 in the spring of 2017,” Mr. Sullivan said. “This fall, it grew to about 60 schools. We’re overwhelmed by the great response.”

According to Mr. Sullivan, the program had distributed more than 5,000 Charlie Cardinal bookmarks and about 2,200 tickets. While not every school receives a visit from Charlie and Ball State student-athletes, the plans are to make more visits as the program continues to expand.

With their busy schedules, it’s sometimes easy for student-athletes to overlook “the kind of positive impact we can have on the community,” said senior Bailey Baumer, a member of the women’s volleyball team who made a school visit this fall with Charlie’s Reading Challenge. “It was so much fun to see how the kids look up to us as college athletes and how excited they were to be a part of the program.”

Community engagement is vital

Ball State’s Office of Community Engagement (OCE) was a critical partner in launching the challenge. The office serves as a “front door” for community partnerships in Muncie and Delaware County. “Working with Athletics to get this program off the ground was a pleasure,” said Suzie Jones, OCE project coordinator. “It’s the kind of effort that truly fits well with our mission and with the mission of the University as a whole.”

Continuing into the basketball season, Charlie’s Reading Challenge has about 80 schools enrolled for the Spring 2018 semester. A coloring contest has been added for preschool and kindergarten students.

But wherever the program goes in the future, one thing’s for sure: It’s leaving behind some happy students and teachers.

“We loved Charlie’s Reading Challenge so much,” said Shenandoah teacher Lindy Holdren, ’98. “It’s great for both the teachers and students. Go Ball State and ‘Chirp! Chirp!’”

In conjunction with the Ball State Office of Community Engagement, Athletics piloted Charlie’s Coloring Contest in seven area preschools. Read more about the colorful results.