Volunteer program offers opportunity to encourage reading

For the past six years I have approached the end of the school year with mixed emotions. To clarify: I do not have children in the public schools here in Denton, Texas, so I don’t experience the thrill and dread of having children home every day for three months.

I do have an interest in public education here, however, and have been privileged to serve as a volunteer for L.A. Nelson Elementary School, reading to a first grade class for 20 minutes once a week. I dread the last day with the class because after seeing them once a week for nine months, I look forward to watching their faces light up over the antics of Tacky the Penguin—by far their favorite book series—and also to chuckle at their comments, questions and observations about the books we read or about anything that pops into their heads. They are smart, inquisitive and eager to share their thoughts.

I never leave that class without a smile on my face and a warm place in my heart, as well as a deep appreciation and admiration for their teacher, Mrs. Jessica Boerner, who manages to maintain order with little more than a look and a calm voice. I’ve read to her class for all six years and consider her a friend.

I look forward to that last day, too, because I always have a surprise for the first graders. Until that last session, we read picture books, usually humorous ones with a low-key message about sharing, friendship, honesty or other trait that elementary school children should begin to develop.

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But that last day I read a chapter book, one with few pictures and those in plain black and white. I tell them beforehand that they have to use their imaginations and draw the picture in their heads as I read. They get excited about the possibilities and feel a bit proud that they are almost second graders and ready for bigger challenges.

I pull a trick on them. I only read three chapters and tell them we don’t have time to read more so they will have to find the book and finish it on their own. They usually look a little disappointed, so I don’t wait long until I tell them that I have a copy of the book for each of them.

One asked me this year if he had to bring the book back after he finished it. We explained that it was his to keep. The smile on his face was priceless.

Mrs. Boerner always gives me a day-after report. She sees her students walking in line reading their books, reading during any non-specific class time. She has reported parents mentioning they had to make their children stop reading and go to sleep. (Sorry about that—not really.)

The result is what we strive for all year—to pass along a love of books and the joy of reading.

I also look forward to that last day because it’s the day I get paid. The students always make artistic, colorful thank-you cards for me with crayons and construction paper. According to first graders, I am funny, nice, the best reader ever, and a wonderful person. My already too-big ego gets another boost.

This year’s last day was a bit sadder than usual. I always know I’ll miss a particular class, but after this year, circumstances and changes mean I will not be available to read to this school next year. It was hard to say goodbye. But Mrs. Boerner reminded me that we’ve read to more than 100 first graders; the first class are now seventh graders. Maybe we’ve made a small difference. I’ve made some wonderful memories—of smiling faces, eager eyes, kids attentive to a senior citizen enjoying himself more than he can explain.

A parting note: I’ve read as a volunteer through a program called the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). They have a lot of opportunities to give back. But you’ll get more than you give.

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