Posted May 10, 2016
Reprinted with permission of Rachel Ham and ColaDaily
Cocky, the University of South Carolina mascot, must be on point at all times. Uniform pressed, ready to dance and wings ready to lead a “GO! COCKS!” cheer at any moment.
But that’s the exterior of Cocky’s world. It’s what’s inside the suit that really counts.
For Cocky’s Reading ExpressTM, a statewide children’s literacy program, there has been a female inhabiting the mascot suit for the very first time. Tara Parker has been donning the spurs and feathers for the past two years, and in that time she’s left her mark on children across South Carolina and on those who run the reading initiative.
“She’s engaging, organized and energetic,” said Christine Shelek, coordinator of Cocky’s Reading Express. “Inside the suit is a great person.”
Run by the USC School of Library and Information Science, Cocky’s Reading Express has distributed more than 103,000 books to children during its first 10 years. Shelek, her student volunteers and Cocky have traveled to every county in the state to read to students, give out free books and remind kids about the importance of literacy.
It was bittersweet this past Tuesday as Parker, who graduates from USC today, transformed into Cocky for the last time.
“As soon as I took my final bow, I started tearing up in the suit,” she recalled.
The Virginia native next will don her cap and gown to receive her degree in Retailing Management and Hospitality Management, a double major with a minor in Sport and Entertainment Management. Also a part of her commencement day ensemble, Parker will wear her Cocky feet, a tradition for all who serve as the USC mascot as they stroll across the graduation stage revealing for the first time that they’ve been the life inside the suit.
Cocky’s Reading Express “has enriched my life and blessed me in the most incredible ways that I will always be grateful for,” Parker said.
Just like the Cocky mascots who run the sidelines during USC football games — the university maintains a mystery as to how many there are exactly— the Cocky’s Reading Express mascot must audition for the role. After seeing Parker audition in 2014, Shelek knew she’d found her newest Cocky.
And when she shared the good news with Parker?
“Instant tears came to my eyes,” Parker said, recalling vividly the phone call she received while standing in line at a local coffee shop. “I couldn’t believe that my dream was actually coming true.”
During school visits, Cocky helps USC student volunteers “read” to children by acting out the stories.
“She makes the books comes to life,” Shelek said.
“It has been so incredible to watch how the young children respond to the ‘celebrity’ that Cocky is,” Parker said. “The excitement in their voices when I pop out of hiding in the middle of the program is so touching and rewarding.”
Though part of her job is to act a little silly, Parker realized the importance of the literacy program for South Carolina’s younger generation.
“Being Cocky in general is a huge honor,” she said. “But being able to take it one step further and using who Cocky is to inspire these children to read every day and become they best they can be — there is nothing better.”
Before becoming Cocky, Parker wasn’t aware of low literacy rates in some parts of South Carolina, often due to a lack of books in some family homes.
“Cocky’s Reading Express is so important because we are tackling the serious issue that illiteracy is in the state,” Parker said. “We are raising the children of the future, and if we are not starting at the single most important skill to have to gain knowledge, being able to read, then we are failing as a society to give the future a better tomorrow than we have today.”
When not dancing to the song from the popular “Pete the Cat” children’s book series, Parker always could be counted on to make sure Cocky’s Reading Express ran smoothly. She was willing to help out even when not in her mascot suit, Shelek said.
Her dedication landed Parker a few gigs as Cocky at sporting events, birthday parties, even weddings. In return, Cocky taught her a few things, too.
“Cocky’s sense of excitement is something I never hope to lose. He finds joy in the simplest of things,” Parker said. “Even if the Gamecocks are losing, Cocky is the happiest fan in the crowd and he can always make someone smile.
“So I hope to carry that attitude and outlook on life with me, that no matter what happens, you can always find joy in your circumstances, and you can share that light with others,” she added.
Parker plans to work in the Columbia area after graduation and volunteer with Cocky’s Reading Express as an alumna when she’s able.