The young serving the younger

Sun Staff

On a hot summer day, 12-year- old Jenny Delcher could be hanging out with friends or watching TV. Instead, she volunteers two hours a week at the Baltimore County Public Library's Towson branch, signing up younger kids for the library's summer reading program, walking them through the program's reading game and handing out prizes.

"It's a nice thing to do to help little kids," said Jenny, a seventh-grader at Ridgely Middle School. She is one of 56 middle school volunteers working at the Towson branch and is among 638 such volunteers countywide who are helping younger children while earning community service credits.

The volunteers are a key part of the library's Summer Reading 2001 program, the annual promotion effort that last year drew 27,000 participants in Baltimore County. Last year's middle school volunteers logged 11,000 hours helping out, library officials said.

"We really depend on the volunteers to run the program," said Jo Blankenburg, a Towson librarian.

The Baltimore County library system has had a summer reading program in some form since 1948, when just a few branches participated. The current program has been in place since 1984, when Sneaks the Cat, a cartoon character, became the mascot. It since has been adopted by library systems around the state.

Each year, the program features Sneaks in a different adventure that serves as the organizing theme for summer reading. This year's theme, "Buggy about Reading," includes such activities as reading about bugs and drawing or making a model of a bug. Older participants answer questions about bugs, among other reading tasks.

Club participants who successfully complete the program receive a certificate of "Bugology" and sign a big certificate in the library that reads, "I completed the Summer Reading Club Program."

Running a program that draws thousands of participants is a lot of work - and that's where the middle school volunteers come in. Without them, several librarians would be tethered to a table all day, said library spokesman Robert Hughes.

"These middle-schoolers are invaluable," Hughes said. "They're enthusiastic and bright."

The volunteers - all in sixth, seventh or eighth grade - are introduced to the program in February. They receive orientation in late April and training in May.

"Cooperation with the school system is crucial to getting this many kids involved," Hughes said.

Monday morning is the busiest time for the program. That's when prizes for the week become available. Two volunteers work together in two-hour shifts to cover that period.

"The volunteers seem to have a real sense of ownership of the program," said Hughes. "They're very happy when people sign up, they're glad to hand out awards and they feel they have a responsibility to deliver."

Many of the middle school pupils have been in the program for several years, first as participants and then volunteers. Earlier in the summer, a second-grader wanted to volunteer - and was dismayed to learn that she has to wait four years, said Blankenburg.

Because some of the younger children might be too shy to ask a librarian for help, "the volunteers might be the face they come to know at the library this summer," she said.

Children from preschool though fifth grade receive prizes every week, and middle school pupils every two weeks. The librarians have noticed that the volunteers make elaborate displays with the prizes, said Blankenburg.

Kevin Williams, 12, an eighth-grader at Roland Park Middle School, said his favorite part of volunteering is "giving out prizes, because they're always so happy."

For Jenny Delcher, volunteering at a library makes sense. She said reading and English are her favorite subjects, and during slow times at the library, she can do some of her own summer reading.

Organizers of the program say that volunteer participation is up. This year's group broke last year's record of 539 volunteers. The program will wrap up this summer with a pizza and ice cream party for volunteers, with lots of door prizes.

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