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The River That Never Runs Dry

The River That Never Runs DryAfter nine years, Read by the River proves that Tufts students, elementary school students and a shared love of books can be a magical mix.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [04.11.08] For the seasoned elementary student in one of Medford's public schools, spring means a few important things-recess outside, spring break and Tufts University's Read by the River.

The annual event, which recently took place on March 30, brings students to the Tufts campus for an afternoon to remind them that reading is an adventure. Though all students are welcome to join in festivities, celebrating reading through games, activities and prizes, students who turn in a written book report are treated to a free book and movie passes.

In the nine years since its inception at Tufts, Read by the River has become a model for bridge programs between the university and the local community. This year more than 600 students from Medford area schools attended the event, which was staffed by more than 200 Tufts student volunteers.

Part of what makes Read by the River so special, and so successful, is its ability to bring together undergraduates from across the campus. While Tufts Hillel runs the event, volunteers come from many different campus organizations, making the event as much about community as it is about literacy.

"We wanted something that would both draw more interest and engagement from the local community and pull many, many more students into the project," says Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, director of Tufts Hillel and one of Read by the River's founders.

The organizers decided to start by appealing to the Hillel community for support. Shari Redstone (A'75), a Hillel board member and owner of the National Amusements Cinema chain, volunteered to donate movie passes for students who wrote book reports for the event.

Organizers also turned to another board member, Dan Kraft (A'87), the executive vice president of The Kraft Group, owners of the New England Patriots. "We wanted to see if we could have the Patriots as role models and [Kraft] was wonderful about this," Summit says. "Every year the team has sent a player and they come not only to read to the kids but to talk to them about the importance of literacy."

Enthusiasm from within the Hillel community was quickly matched by teachers and students in local schools.

"The teachers have really bought into this as a program," says Lauren Estes, assistant programming director at Hillel and one of the staff organizers of the event. "They really advertise it, they promote it. They love the idea that the kids have to do a book report and that it's typically supposed to be non-classroom reading, so it's supposed to put the fun back in reading."

As the event continued to grow, it began drawing participation not only from local schools but also from the library, fire department and community centers. "All these other organizations really see their connection as a way that Tufts students are giving back to the Medford community," says Summit.

Estes credits Read by the River's success to strong community relationships. "It's because of these connections that have taken a couple of years to build, but we've really built them and they're solid connections and that's how it sustains itself year after year."

Perhaps the most important connections, though, are those developed between Medford youngsters and Tufts students. Hannah Auerbach (A'08), who chaired the event this year, got a taste of students' enthusiasm when she visited a local school to promote Read by the River.

"They asked for our autographs," she recounts. "I think that they think college students are just really cool and they want to hang out with them. Volunteers can really see the difference that they're making, especially people who talk to the kids, who are so excited and so invested in it."

Senior Harrison Levy, a member of the Read by the River board who has worked on the event for the last four years, pointed to the connection between local students and college students as the program's most important aspect.

"Yes, it is a carnival, so [students] are rewarded with games and treats, but the real reward for them I think is meeting college students who clearly love to read," Levy says. "My hope is that the kids who attend Read by the River see the college students helping out and realize that it is 'cool' to like reading."

Estes agreed. "The opportunity that kids can have to connect to an older mentor, even if it's just for three and a half hours, is huge to them," says Estes. "And I think the Tufts volunteers see that and that's what kind of trickles from one year to the next."

Profile by Hannah Ehrlich (A'08)

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