Tucked away beyond the revelry of pre-game homecoming celebrations in the High Point Solutions Stadium parking lots is an oasis of child-focused activities, where a DJ plays upbeat tunes and alumni families relax and enjoy watching their children play in a safe environment.
Tailgaiting can – and should – be a family affair, say Rutgers President Robert Barchi and his wife, Francis, who this year launched the R Family Fall Festival for young alumni on the lawn of their residence.
“My husband and I always walk from our house to the football games through the parking lot tailgate parties,” says Francis Barchi. “Then one day the ‘Mommy gene’ kicked in. We remember being parents of small children and realized that while the tailgates aren’t dangerous, the environment can be too rowdy and crowded for kids.”
Last spring, the Barchis brought their concept of a family-friendly, alcohol-free homecoming event to the Rutgers University Alumni Association. They suggested the president’s lawn as the perfect location since it’s a contained area near the stadium and wouldn’t diminish the parking lot space for tailgaters.
“When we heard the idea, we were all in. We knew a family festival before the homecoming game would be a fantastic opportunity for young parents and alums who are grandparents to share with their children what it means to be a part of Rutgers community,” says Donna Thornton, vice president of Alumni Relations. “We are looking forward to continuing this tradition next year.”
The Alumni Association identified and invited families with small children to the event. In addition, it opened a “Family Photo Contest” to the public on social media. Nine winning families received four tickets to the game and a grand-prize winner was given tickets to watch the game in the Audi Rutgers Club.
The inaugural festival featured carnival games, a bounce house where kids can jump, seasonal food, arts and crafts, face painting and animal attractions such as pony rides and a petting zoo sponsored by the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. The star of the petting zoo was a 6-week-old piglet named “Chunk.”“It’s great that all these young families came out to see what we’re all about,” says Chunk’s handler, junior Emily Martines, a work-study employee at the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station Animal Care Program. “Events like these allow us to show our Rutgers pride to the youngest members of our community.”
The alumni families who attended the event agree. “We just live Rutgers,” says Stacy Thompson, who stands outside the bounce house with husband, David Kanarek, watching their children, Maddie, 4, and Samuel Benjamin Henry Kanarek, 6. “And yes, that ‘Henry’ is after Henry Rutgers.” The couple, who graduated in 2000, are season ticket holders who bring their children to day games. Having a place where the children can play helps to break up what is otherwise a long day, they say.
Kanarek also appreciates the number of events Rutgers sponsors that are geared toward children. “Families can celebrate Rutgers not just as a team, but as a whole community and academic environment,” he says. “Our kids can connect more with Rutgers, the entire university, rather than just to the sports program.”
The festival gave families an opportunity to meet the Barchis, who mingled with the crowd, and for the Barchis to become more acquainted with recent graduates. “People think that fall at a Big Ten institution is all about football. It’s nice to create some events that are occurring coincidentally with the game, but are more about the Rutgers community than football,” says Barchi, who notes that she met alumni who drove a distance for the festival but were not attending the game.Austin Bradley and Jaclyn Bradley-McFarlane and their children, Seth, 11, and Tyler, 8, are one such family. “This is our fourth homecoming. Usually, we came alone to tailgate with friends. We were excited to be able to bring the children this year,” says Bradley-McFarlane, who calls herself a “multiple alum.” She has an undergraduate degree in urban studies, a master’s degree in city and regional planning and is a current Ph.D. student and employee at the School of Business-Camden. “It’s an early opportunity for them to experience a campus environment before it’s time to look at colleges.”
Barchi says that events like the Fall Festival will benefit young alumni families. “We have a number of events throughout the year that focus on families – like Rutgers Day and SEBS programs – but we haven’t done a lot around football that engages our returning young alums,” she says. “The more we can do to continue the great experience as the students graduate will help to keep that continuum of what it means to be a part of this community.”
She points to the children in the bounce house. “The kids who grow up coming here, having a great time, will see themselves as part of the fabric of Rutgers life. It builds a sense of continuity and legacy.”
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