Building on a tradition established almost twenty years ago by Dr. and Mrs. Walter Bortz, President Larry Stimpert and his wife Lesley hosted more than one thousand local children at Kirby Field House for Hampden-Sydney’s first Dr. Seuss Birthday Bash. Second grade students from six area counties enjoyed games, treats, and a book giveaway at the February event, which celebrated the famed author’s fanciful approach to literacy and learning.
Hampden-Sydney’s Literacy Program began in 2000 with the Bortzes’ desire to “demonstrate in a small way our commitment to reading as well as tighten the bond between the College and the local community.” To that end, the College has presented a children’s dictionary to each Prince Edward County second grader for the past 16 years. Traditionally, the College president and his family have visited the elementary school to present the dictionaries. This year, the Stimperts expanded the Literacy Program well beyond Prince Edward County, inviting second graders from every surrounding county to come to a fun-filled event on campus.
Inspired by Lesley Stimpert’s career as a children’s librarian, the Birthday Bash was designed to spread the love of reading and get children excited about literacy. “With the dictionaries, the Bortzes and the Howards gave the children a resource,” said Mrs. Stimpert. “I wanted to continue their work promoting literacy while bringing in some of my own experience as a librarian.” This prompted a change from the dictionaries to classic Dr. Seuss books that children can read and re-read. Also important to Mrs. Stimpert was allowing the children to choose their own books. “As librarians, we use a lot of incentives to get kids reading, and choice is an important element in that.” This year, each child could choose from seven Dr. Seuss titles ranging from entry-level readers to heftier picture books. And making it a classic birthday party, complete with cupcakes and bounce houses, guaranteed a fun time for the seven- and eight-year-old children.
Having the second graders come to campus also added a new aspect to the Literacy Program. For many of the children, the field trip was their first exposure to a college campus. Mrs. Stimpert enjoyed seeing the children expand their experience: “They were able to associate the College with an actual place, and they had fun while doing so.” In addition, the Stimperts included H-SC students in the process; wearing their team jerseys, members of several athletic teams helped the children pick out individual books. “It was important for me that the children saw young men who are interested in literacy,” said Mrs. Stimpert. “Having our Hampden-Sydney students hand out the books really got the kids excited.”
Freshman basketball player Chase Johnson ’20 said he “loved every minute of interacting with the kids. Getting to see the smiles on their faces when they picked out their books was such a good feeling.” Football captain Daniel Fogelberg ’17 added, “It’s so valuable for H-SC students to connect with local kids and give back to the community. I loved seeing their faces light up when they saw how much can be done with reading, and I really hope it sparks their interest in books.”
The students weren’t the only members of the College community to join the Stimperts at the event. From Dr. and Mrs. Ronald Heinemann manning a Jurassic-themed bounce house to Director of Admissions Jason “Ferg” Ferguson ’96 leading games of LORAX (a modification of the basketball game HORSE), over 50 faculty and staff members volunteered at the Birthday Bash. Farmville area sponsors also joined forces, with Walmart, McDonalds, and Magic Special Events donating juice boxes, apple slices, and bounce houses, respectively.
“With 1,035 children in attendance, we could not have made the day the success it was without our volunteers and our sponsors,” said Cameron Cary, director of college events. She noted that feedback from the children, their teachers, and College volunteers was overwhelmingly positive. “It did my heart good when an H-SC student said this was one of the best things he’s done during his four years here.”