CUMBERLAND - Leave it to others to debate whole language vs. phonics and the other academic arguments about the best way to teach children to read. Youngsters get only one message at the Western Maryland Reading Center. It's simple and direct: Reading is a good thing.
Using a room in the Kingsley-Grace Mission Center in a working-class area of Cumberland, the center has welcomed a dozen or so children, ages 5 to 14, two afternoons a week during the school year. Some play games that help with word recognition. Others turn on computers and plug in programs that teach spelling. There are flashcards and a few textbooks.
But as often as not, the kids curl up next to Flora Wilson or Mary Anne Roach or one of the other volunteers who stop by in the afternoons, and read a book.
That's what John Cody Readd, 7, was doing one recent afternoon. Wilson sat next to him and helped him with the words he stumbled over. The first-grader had an explanation for why he was spending his afternoon at the center.
"I like books," he said.
If the atmosphere in the room in this converted church feels more like a family gathering than an instructional enterprise, that's no surprise. It is a family affair - Wilson is Roach's mother - and the center is something of a shrine to the memory of Roach's son Christopher, who died of a heart ailment two years ago at age 12.
Roach, 51, said her youngest son was having trouble in school because of reading difficulties in the first grade, so he started attending the reading center when he was 6. By the time he reached middle school, she said, he was in honors classes.
"He loved the center," Wilson, 81, said. "He once told me, 'Someday, I'm going to run the reading center.'"
Founded in 1986 by a Frostburg State professor, the center originally was housed in a church on the other side of town and funded by the federal VISTA program. Not long after Christopher started attending the center in 1992, the VISTA grant ran out.
Wilson and Roach were determined to keep it going, in large part because it was so important to Christopher. So they took over the program and reorganized it.
They were equally determined to keep it going after Christopher's death, helping to raise the money to move to the Mission Center this year closer to many of their pupils in the southern part of Cumberland, where small rowhouses line the streets and several public housing projects are located.
A plaque with Christopher's picture and an inscription dedicating the center in his memory hang on one wall.
Wilson and Roach expect the center to attract more children in coming months as the word of the new location gets out. Many youngsters learn about the center from their teachers or librarians. The main funding comes from small donations.
Wilson said she recruits most of the center's tutors from senior centers. Although one is a retired teacher, she said there is no particular training for the tutors. The adults find a place in one of the many empty rooms in the center, and sit down and read with a child, just as they once did with their children, just as Flora once did with Mary Anne.
"They are just people who have time and can help kids to read," said Wilson.
But even without any theoretical underpinnings, the common-sense approach yields nuggets of wisdom.
"You want to get them to come in and sound out words before they get to middle school," said Roach, showing an intrinsic understanding not only of the importance of phonics, but also of getting children to read by age 9. "After that, they get too self-conscious to do that. They're embarrassed when they get too old."
For some of the youngsters, the center is a place to go after school, something to do other than hang out on the streets. But while they are there, children get a dose of reading.
"We try to keep it fun," Roach said. "They do the work, but it's not like it's a school. They're not in a classroom. They don't have to do it. But if you make it a fun place, they don't even know they're learning."