Arts & Entertainment

We R Family: Rutgers’ Tailgate Party for Kids Forges a New Tradition

Dan and Elaine Griffin enjoy a beautiful morning before the Homecoming game with their daughters (from left) Danielle, Mary and Kelleigh. Credits: Fred Stucker

PISCATAWAY, NJ - “Are you guys having fun?”

Elaine Griffin calls out to her daughters Kelleigh, 6, Danielle, 5, and Mary, 2, who have differing ideas as to what they want to do next: pet piglets, get their faces painted or grab a cupcake.

It’s a fair debate. At R Family Fall Festival, held at the president’s residence before the Rutgers University Homecoming football game, there’s so much to do that it’s difficult to decide where to start.For Griffin, who was enrolled at Douglass Residential College and graduated from Rutgers in 2001, the festival is the perfect way to introduce her children to a university that truly is the backbone of her family. Griffin’s childhood wasRutgers.

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Her father, Daniel Rossi, a former dean at Cook College, and her brother, James, and sister, Kate, also earned degrees from the university in 2004. Her father, a first-generation college graduate, impressed upon his family the importance of maintaining strong ties to your alma mater. “When I was a kid, my parents and I lived on campus, since my dad was a young professor and a residence director, ” she says. “So, this really is a homecoming for me.”

Over the past three years, Rutgers alumni with young children, like Griffin, have enjoyed what has become a beloved Homecoming tradition: tailgating as a family in the shadow of High Point Solutions Stadium in a safe environment.

The festival was launched in 2014 when President Robert Barchi and his wife, Francis, brought their concept of a family-friendly, alcohol-free Homecoming event to the Rutgers University Alumni Association. They suggested the lawn of their residence as the ideal location because it is a contained area close to the stadium but tucked away from the more boisterous environment in the parking lot.

The thought of hosting a festival designed for children came to the Barchis in 2012, during their first Rutgers football season. Whenever the Scarlet Knights played at home, they would navigate the parking lot tailgate parties as they walked from their residence to the stadium. They realized that although the tailgates are not dangerous, the environment could be too rowdy for kids.

“This was a wonderful idea that Francis conceptualized: She wanted an event where parents didn’t have to worry about where their kids were or if they were being entertained,” says President Barchi right before climbing up into a tractor to give guests a hayride around the grounds.

As Francis watches the children scramble onto the wagon behind him, she smiles. “It just gets better every year,” she says. “Homecoming is such a celebratory time, and this festival allows young children to participate as well.

Throughout the grounds, families mingle, enjoying seasonal food, arts and crafts, carnival games and animal attractions such as pony rides and a petting zoo sponsored by the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS).

“Having animals at the festival is a great way to reach out to the community,” says Felicia Kleiman, senior research animal worker at SEBS, as she helps children catch a glimpse of the zoo’s star attraction: 3-week old piglets named Fiona, Ivy, Sprinkles and Porcelain. “Kids who are here today could be tomorrow’s veterinarians or doctors. It allows them to learn more about our animal science program.”

This year, the Alumni Association added a contest. Guests were encouraged to use the #RFamilyFallFest hashtag to share photos or videos on Instagram for a chance to win a family four-pack of tickets to the Rutgers vs. Indiana game on Nov. 5 if their photo is one of three randomly chosen.

Since its inception, the festival has become an avenue for young alumni to maintain ties with their alma mater and foster a sense of community with their peers. And the numbers speak to their interest: More than 350 alumni registered to attend.

“When alumni start families, life tends to intervene. They drift away from Rutgers and only come back later when their kids are older,” says Francis Barchi. “The festival is a new tradition that they can look forward to. They come back and wonder what color pigs we will have this year or if Teacup the pony will be giving rides.”

Ben Teris, of Deptford Township, and his wife, Leslie, are first-time attendees who say they will definitely return. The couple are two-time Rutgers graduates, having received their undergraduate degrees from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and their law degrees from Rutgers Law School in Camden in 2011.

“It is so fantastic to be able to attend a tailgate,” says Teris as his 18-month-old daughter, Hannah, tugs him toward the bounce house. “She’s at that age when she wants to see and touch everything. The parking lots can be raucous, and we would worry that she could run off. Plus, here there is a lot to entertain her.”

Donna Thornton, vice president of alumni relations, annual giving and communications, says many young alumni have told her how much they appreciate being included in an event geared to their stage in life. “Being ‘Scarlet Forever’ is about family – and it’s a family that extends beyond your years as a Rutgers student,” she says. “It is a lifelong family that is always there for one another.”    

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