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Q&A: Mount Airy Mayor Rockinberg on reading to youngsters during pandemic with help from Meatball, his dog

In a time of social distancing, Mount Airy Mayor Pat Rockinberg has stayed connected to his community by reading books to children through social media.

For about two months, Rockinberg, along with his dog Meatball, have read stories to children through the town’s Facebook page. Rockinberg read books such as “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss and “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak,” with an often sleepy Meatball by his side. They garnered thousands of views, and in the process, shared news about the town, promoted local business, and kept people smiling.

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The Times recently caught up with Rockinberg about the experience. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How did these videos get started?

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A: Elaina Wise Johnson (a local parent) approached me and asked if I would read a book to the children and it actually went so well, we decided to go ahead and do it every week. We got a lot of requests after the first reading, so we turned it into a regular series while the children were limited in other areas. We wanted to try to fill that with something different, something fun. In addition to the reading series, we also had the sidewalk chalk competition. So we were trying to as a town to come together and to fill some of the needs that were not being addressed due to the restrictions placed on us by the virus.

Q: How did people receive the readings?

A: I was actually very happily surprised. I’ve had adults that would jog by my house close to noon and say, ‘Oh, I have to get home for the 12 o’clock reading.' The comments were fantastic. I was able to incorporate my dog Meatball, who is a local celebrity in town. I was able to incorporate Meatball and to dress her up and we tried to do costumes. We tried to make it fun. We tried to always insert a nice message. I often deferred what that message was to the parents. I was really surprised at how well it was received and how much people enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed it just as much, and Meatball is still contacting her agent.

Q: I saw at the end of some videos you were promoting a local business or a fundraiser or providing a message about things that were opening back up. Was that part of the intent behind this, to make it something fun for the community and informative?

A: You know, it really just evolved, spur of the moment. Things popped up, like when we read at Knill’s [Farm Market], we were able to promote you know, buy local, buy healthy, get outside. We want to include other messages, like parks are open, and be safe. We used it as a fun platform to not only reach out and send a good message and entertain the children, but also to get a message out about the community and where we were at that time.

Q: How many videos did you end up doing and over what period of time?

A: Well, I think about roughly over a two month period and I did approximately about six readings. I did have a couple guests, councilmember Jason Poirier, councilmember Larry Hushour and his wife also did a reading about the train. It was just so much fun. Really, when we’re going through these unthinkable times, to have something like that come in, that’s just another silver lining. There’s a lot of new things we can learn in ways we can improve our community and our stability.

Q: What was your favorite book to read?

A: ‘Where the Wild Things Are,' my favorite book as a child. I did enjoy the final book suggested by Gina Campanile, who is our social media director, because it talked about a change in the blossoming from a caterpillar to a butterfly. While one story came to an end, which was the reading series, another beautiful beginning was happening and that beautiful beginning is the parks are open, the library is open, and the restaurants were opening up some for outdoor dining. So our world was opening up a little bit more like the butterfly coming out of the cocoon.

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