SUMMIT, NJ - The students of Jefferson Elementary School on Ashwood Avenue in Summit gathered around the big guys in the maroon and gold jerseys and sat patiently waiting for the night's events to begin this past Thursday night. While the towering football players could have looked intimidating to the youngsters in some other setting, the mood inside the school's gymnasium was jovial and the kids sat in rapt anticipation as one-by-one, the Hilltoppers began to read a collection of children's books to the assembled audience.
Summit head coach John Liberato, himself a father, addressed the kids and parents about the importance of giving back to the community and his players followed that example as they each took turns reciting the rhyming and humorous phrases of the assorted books that had been selected. "It's a dream come true," Liberato said afterward. "This is what I think every coach would want their program to be like. The community being behind you, the parents being behind you, the players just enjoying every minute on and off the field and it just speaks volumes of the Summit community, how everything is just embraced, how everything comes together. We try and not only give our kids a great education here in Summit, but we try and teach the whole person."
The Hilltoppers not only enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the local kids who obviously look up to them, they took a sense of satisfaction away from an evening that featured not only their readings, but also Summit resident and children's author Patricia Saxton (The Book of Mermaids and The Book of Fairies) guest reading her works and explaining the process of writing a book.
When asked how the evening came together, event organizer Susan Tarashuk said: "It was suggested by another parent to invite Coach Liberato. I thought it was a great choice due to the fact that they just won the state champioship and Coach Liberato was named Coach of the Year. I knew some children who play 5th grade football as well as those that don't, would be very excited to have them read to them."
After the players read several books, the children engaged in several activities including giveaways, family reading, snacks and a "make your own bookmark" station. All told, Jefferson School's Family Reading Night Program was a success not only for the children it was meant to entertain and enlighten, but for the Hilltoppers and their coach.
"It's just great to give back, especially with all the hard work we've done [this season]. It really feels nice to be able to do this for these kids," said senior quarter back Joe Jaskolski. "One thing Coach [Liberato] has always said is, 'It's not all about what you do on the field, it's what you do off the field that has an impact as well.' And that really showed right here. I remember being one of these little kids and just looking at these huge guys and that really inspired me to become what I am today."
Jaskolski's teammate and fellow senior, offensive lineman Matt Mulholland agreed. "It's great to be a role model to these kids. I'm glad that we get to give back to the community that does so much for us. I just hope they keep the tradition going. This community is so influential in everything I do. You know, the school system is great, but not only do we get a Grade A education, but the teachers teach us how to be real people, really good people all around with a good moral background."
The free event was open to families of Jefferson School students. Each child went home with a brand new, free book donated by either Harper-Collins Books or MacMillan Children's Books. The entire evening went off without a hitch thanks to the efforts of both Susan Tarashuk and the numerous guest readers and several Summit Middle School 8th grad volunteers.
"Reading Night was the first of its kind at Jefferson School, but with its success I'm sure another one will be planned," Tarashuk said. "The PTO is already in the planning stages of holding its second Family Movie Night."
For Coach Liberato and his players, the feeling of interacting with the local children in the same school system of which they are all a part was a reward in and of itself. The community-oriented philosophy showcased by the Hilltoppers is a direct result of Liberato's own ideas about how community works. "Letting kids understand that when they go through something, it's their turn to give back," Liberato said. "Tonight was our opportunity to give back an educational experience. When we go to Lauern's First and Goal Camp, it's our chance to give back to pediatric brain cancer research and we try to teach the kids that you have to attach yourself to some kind of charity when you graduate high school or college or have your own business so that you can always feel good about the things you have, but yet, you should always give because the more you give, the more you're going to receive."
For the students of Jefferson Elementary School, their families, the alumni, the Hilltoppers and all who were involved in what was a truly enjoyable evening, Liberato's words ring true. When a community comes together to give back to its youngest and most important members, one can't help but feel good about the potential for positive inspiration an event like Thursday's can provide. "It's something that really brings the community together and allows us all to take pride in what we do," Liberato said.