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Kouandjio Retraces Roots Through WRCF Visit

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Redskins offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio on Tuesday visited his former elementary school in Beltsville, Md., to encourage reading among fourth and fifth grade students.

As Arie Kouandjio reflected on his day spent with students at Beltsville Academy in Beltsville, Md., on Tuesday, one word he repeatedly used was "blessed."

Redskins offensive lineman Arie Kouandjio on Tuesday visited his former elementary school in Beltsville, Md., to encourage reading among fourth and fifth grade students.

Once a shy second grader from Cameroon faced with entering a new country and new school, the rookie Redskins offensive lineman appreciates how far he's come with both with his education and his career.

"Today I got the opportunity to see some of the kids and see some of the teachers I had," Kouandjio said. "It's just a great feeling, a great blessing and I'm happy to be here."

Kouandjio's visit to Beltsville was a part of the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation's Redskins Read Program. Sixty elementary schools across the region were selected to participate in this pilot program, combining monthly writing prompts and classroom incentives for participation.

The reinvented Redskins Read Playbook (a 24-page booklet) focuses on providing supplemental classroom activities for fourth and fifth grade students for writing, reading and vocabulary that can be utilized in the classroom or as homework assignments.

The Foundation teamed up with FedEx to deliver thousands of Redskins Read Playbooks to the participating 60 schools. Tuesday's FedEx Special Delivery event served as the kickoff to the 2015-2016 program with the ceremonial delivery to Beltsville Academy's students and teachers.

The Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation and FedEx have delivered more than 1.9 million books across the Washington, D.C., region over the course of their eight-year partnership.

Kouandjio spent the morning on Tuesday completing Playbook writing activities with fourth and fifth graders, hoping to promote a love of reading among the students. According to Jane Rodgers, the executive director of the Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation, the Foundation's focus on literacy aims to bring excitement to reading.

"We're looking for ways to create rewards and incentives to make reading really fun and make sure that kids enjoy reading in their primary years," Rodgers said. "Having strong reading and writing skills is a platform for success, and by integrating these activities with the excitement of the Redskins, we are presenting reading in an entirely new approach to help students understand and be creative with literary techniques." Beltsville Academy principal Leslie Lowe knows just how important it is for her school, as well as all schools around Prince George's County, to focus on literacy.

"Our school's focus is particularly on increasing the use of vocabulary in all areas, so that our children can become better readers and be able to better comprehend what they read so that they can read to learn as they get older and be successful in college," she said.

Lowe, who was a staff member when Kouandjio attended Beltsville, was grateful to have such a positive role model returning to visit her students.

"To have one of our own students be so successful and to come back and visit the kids and share the information about how important reading is and showing his success is just a really great boost for our literacy program," she said.

Kouandjio also had the chance to see another special person from his past on Tuesday – his sixth grade teacher, Ms. Hopkins. As the two embraced, it was clear that their mutual fondness and respect for each other has been preserved over the years.

"She's been following me for the past I don't even know how many years. She writes me messages and comments on Facebook and likes my pictures, kind of like in the background watching over my shoulder," Kouandjio. "It's been amazing to have her over the past couple of years and it was amazing to have her as a teacher. We really bonded over our time, even though I guess I got in a little bit of trouble here and there. But she always looked out for me, and I'm very appreciative of being able to see her."

Though he has earned his Masters from the University of Alabama and now plays for the Redskins, Principal Lowe and her colleagues still see the same student that walked through Beltsville Academy's doors all those years ago when they look at Kouandjio.

Lowe said "he is the same guy that he was as a young boy."

"He came here from Cameroon, he was shy, quiet, and you know new school, new country, and new language. He had some English but it wasn't his first language," she recalled. "We called him our 'gentle giant' because he was just bigger than the rest of the kids but he was quiet, polite, helpful and very driven. He always wanted to do well. He worked hard, stayed after school to get extra help when he didn't understand and he's the same kid today as a grown man."

That same drive he's exhibited since second grade shows both on and off the field for Kouandjio. An Academic All-American at Alabama, he said he hopes to continue to mentor young kids for the rest of his career.

"They say the phrase 'knowledge is power' a lot, and I truly do believe that," Kouandjio said. "I want to see the next generation do well. Because I'm here and because I've been through some of the circumstances involved with some of the kids' lives today, I especially want them to do well."

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