These kids derive a lot from having a Reading Pal

Published: Friday, September 6, 2013 at 5:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 at 5:54 p.m.

They aspire to share their love of reading with elementary kids. While they're at it, these volunteers also are helping to improve local high school graduation rates.

To accomplish this, they're taking part in ReadingPals, a program founded in 2012 that matches volunteers to second- and third-grade children who are reading below their grade level. The volunteers read to the children for an hour every week during the school year.

The United Way of North Central Florida hosted a kickoff breakfast Friday for the program's returning and prospective volunteers at the historic Thomas Center.

Debbie Mason, president and CEO of the United Way of North Central Florida, said the theme for this year's reading program is "The power of one."

"(ReadingPals) is a great opportunity to change a child's life," she said. "Anytime you improve a child's education, you're also changing a family and a community."

Mason said about 22 percent of kids in Alachua County drop out of school because they can't succeed in learning. She said the students have difficulty learning often because they don't know how to read.

Sometimes the volunteers reach out to children in a way parents can't, she said. Mason remembers one mother telling her that she couldn't get her daughter to read, but the ReadingPals volunteers were successful because they made it entertaining.

"It isn't always just about learning to read," Mason said. "It's about having a great time and an adventure through reading."

Ivy Bell, a returning volunteer, joined the program to inspire children to read. Once she arrived at Lake Forest Elementary School, she said she didn't have to do a lot to encourage the children because they already had the enthusiasm for reading.

Bell recalls the students waiting eagerly for her to arrive.

"It made my job as a volunteer so easy," she said.

Bell remembers one student in particular who was so determined to finish "Diary of a Wimpy Kid." She said the kids get excited about finishing a book because they can take it home and start their own library collection.

Bell said the boy wanted to finish the book to feel that sense of accomplishment and to see what was going to happen next in the story.

Getting the children to focus and read for an hour is never a problem for Bell. She said she has more problems getting them to stop reading.

She said she thinks ReadingPals is an excellent program that meets an important need in the county's elementary schools. Bell said it gives students the extra one-on-one attention they need.

Angela Hutchings, 26, the new ReadingPals coordinator, said she personally knows the importance of having a mentor.

Hutchings said she grew up on welfare and faced poverty as a child. She said she had some really good influences other than her parents, and she said if she didn't have those people to look up to, she wouldn't have been passionate about reading and might not have gone to college.

She said without program like this, kids may not have that special person in their life.

"(ReadingPals) means having a special friend who can come and visit you," Hutchings said. "Someone who doesn't have to be there for you but is."

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