On a tour of Riley Elementary School in February, Florida State director of player development and operations Jeff Kupper was looking to re-establish a relationship where players could come to read and mentor.
There was undoubtedly a desire for Seminoles to come to Riley – many have done so in the past and tight end Mavin Saunders was a familiar face around the school. What was often missing in classrooms were a necessity: books.
“I went on a reading awareness event with our players in February, pre-COVID, and had a couple of eye-opening experiences,” Kupper said. “We would actually go into some classrooms that didn’t even have a book to read during reading awareness. We had already started that idea in the future of having our own collection in my office so that our players could always show up with a book just in case. But that spawned this idea that we would do a book drive to make sure the place we were investing in had an impact long term.”
Riley Elementary has a library and it meets some of the needs of students. But there is a convenience to students having books available in their elementary school classrooms so that teachers can allocate time to read or to take home a book. School districts don’t often budget for books in the classroom, so teachers often pay for them out of their own pocket or ask parents to make donations.
More than 85 percent of the students at Riley Elementary are eligible for free or reduced breakfast or lunch. That’s one key indicator of the financial assistance needed at the school, which is just two miles north of the Florida State football practice fields.
What Riley needs closely aligns with the goals of many FSU football players. In the last few months, players like Marvin Wilson, Cory Durden and Jaiden Lars-Woodbey have spoken out about racial inequality, the need to vote and their desire to be active in the community as mentors. Kupper said FSU players had a Zoom meeting with a partner, Think Big for Kids, which has helped teach players how to be better mentors.
FSU football players have started a book drive in an effort to stock shelves for kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms.
“If you can have books in the home, the family dynamic of literacy changes so that the kid can read to the parents, the parents can read to the children,” Kupper said. “Our ultimate goal is to be able to stock classrooms with enough books for them to have an impact on a daily basis and if we really reach our goal then we would be able to send home books with the students to have in their house.”
FSU players, coaches and support staff will take part in a beautification day at Riley on Wednesday, the first of what they hope are a few throughout the school year. They will look to promote school pride as they pressure wash, paint or create rock gardens.
“We stress the following pillars at Riley: be safe, be respectful, be responsible, be a team player and be kind,” principal April Knight said. “Kindness is a characteristic that can be implemented at any level. This diverse language promotes unity and teaches our students to embrace the differences of others. Riley is creating a rock garden as one of its special projects. Students will creatively paint and decorate a rock in the colors of their choosing. They would then write a kind word on the rock that has significance to them.”
The relationship between FSU’s athletes and Riley’s students is one that should flourish in the coming months. Kupper said he and coach Mike Norvell see the team being active in the coming years at Riley.
“The skill set that our players have, the time that we know they will have to give, the things that they can do from their platform, it all seems to fit what Riley could benefit from,” Kupper said. “We’re hopeful that they get to see the gratification of their work.”