A program started last year that aims to keep children reading through the summer kicked off Thursday morning with Fort Hays State University student-athletes.

FHSU’s College of Education distributed books last summer at Early Childhood Connections, 305 Main, with members of the FHSU football team. This year, Tiger student-athletes from the women’s basketball, golf, and track and field teams joined in the effort.

This was the first of several distributions through the summer, with organizers planning on approximately 60 books being given out at each.

The program is paid for through grants from the Kansas Health Foundation and Midwest Energy. Last year, the program gave out more than $5,000 worth of books, and organizers hope to increase that this year.

The grants also provided for reading intervention programs through the school year, providing approximately 10 books for each student each semester.

Among the titles kids could choose from Thursday were classics such as “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak and “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein, as well as books about bullying and healthy habits.

The athletes helped kids pick out a book from the tables set in front of the former Washington Elementary School, then spread out on the lawn and sidewalks to toss footballs and practice putting golf balls and dribbling basketballs, pausing to autograph books for the kids. A few found quiet places on the steps to read their selections.

“I didn’t know there was this many kids that come out, but it’s nice to see that,” said Alexcia Deutscher, who throws the javelin for FHSU.

Deutscher said she does more recreational reading during the summer than the school year, and she enjoys mysteries and biographies.

The first group of students to choose their books Thursday were K-12 students in Hays USD 489’s migrant student program. Approximately 30 students are in the program this year.

This week, the students also got to participate in STEM programs through a mobile lab from the Southeast Kansas Education Service Center in Greenbush.

Anthony Guzman, 12, said he enjoyed the four-day STEM program learning about robotics and coding.

“At first it’s complicated, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really cool,” he said.

Students were working on making a robot navigate through a maze, he said. But he also liked the opportunity to get outside and play with the FHSU athletes.

“I think it’s, like, really awesome of them to do this for us. I’m just really grateful they’re doing this for us,” he said as he waited for former FHSU football player Isaiah Maxi to autograph his book.

Maxi was one of the organizers of the book distribution program. He helped kids pick out a book, then joined them on the lawn for some playtime.

“Everyone might not have that positive figure in their life,” he said.

Bringing the athletes and children together can show the youth it’s OK to read, he said.

“I didn’t do much reading because I was not a very strong reader growing up,” he said, and “growing up, that wasn’t the cool thing to do.

Maxi said most of his reading today is centered around articles about making yourself a better person and coaching, but his favorite as a child was the Captain Underpants books.

Valerie Zelenka, FHSU assistant professor of teacher education, said research has shown there is a learning gap between children who don’t read during the summer and those who do. Children from lower-income families often are the ones who fall behind.

“If kids don’t have books in the home, they are less likely to read, and that’s where we see reading loss over the summer months,” she said.

“A lot of research tells us that kids that come from lower-income families, they see reading as something they do in school. They don’t see reading as something to do in their free time,” she said.

“We’re hoping with this project to narrow that,” Zelenka said.

Jerri Haynes, assistant dean of the FHSU College of Education, said bringing in the student-athletes can show the children the importance of learning.

“The role model gives them the opportunity to know there’s a chance for them to be successful or do the same thing the athletes are doing if they value education. It pretty much paves the way,” she said.