Help yourself by helping kids read

I will soon complete my first year as a volunteer "Reading Buddy" at Milbrook Elementary School in Baltimore County. I work full-time, but I'm fortunate to have a schedule that allows me to volunteer for a couple of hours every Friday afternoon. I work with another woman who has volunteered at Milbrook for the last six years. She has become my mentor and friend.

The purpose of the Reading Room is to give students an opportunity to practice their reading skills in a quiet, small group setting. Sometimes students come to chill out, but most often they come to read a favorite book with a classmate or an adult volunteer. The students at Milbrook are an interesting melting pot of America — native born and immigrant children from countries as diverse as Guatemala, Russia and Uzbekistan. All of the children wear typical American clothing — jeans, colorful tops and athletic shoes. Sometimes, I read books with young girls who wear hijabs. Ethnicity doesn't matter when the students share books and read together.

I do this because literacy is critically important to success in school and in the work world. Better readers are less likely to drop out of school and are more likely to pursue college educations. One of the most disturbing statistics cited by many pro-literacy advocates is the Annie E. Casey Foundation's study that finds children who aren't reading at grade level by the end of the third grade are more likely to drop out of school.

From a professional perspective in the nonprofit sector, I understand the prime importance of early childhood education and the emphasis of reading in grades Kindergarten through third grade. Without strong reading skills, most children will continue to lag behind their peers as they move into middle school.

I arrived at Milbrook through a partnership between the school and my church, St. Mark's on The Hill Episcopal Church. For several years, we have worked together on behalf of the students and their families. Other volunteer communities include the Bolton Street Synagogue, CHAI (Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc) and the Syrian Christian Mar Thoma Church. Together, we help children strengthen their reading skills and improve their academic standing. These groups, and others, also offer books, food, clothing and other basic necessities to families with tight budgets.

Everybody can support literacy in their community. Here are some ways to help:

• Support your local public library. Libraries are free and accessible to everybody. In addition to books, libraries provide programs that are entertaining and educational.

• Donate your old eyeglasses to the Lions Club. They can help with free glasses and hearing devices for children. Maryland state law SB 600 (2008) requires each county school board to provide hearing and vision screening for all students in the first year of entry into the system and first grade, and eighth or ninth grade.

• Call a local school and find out what they need. Gift cards can be used to buy and enrich a teacher's classroom library. A $25 gift card can buy books that children will treasure.

As the school year comes to a close, I feel my time at Milbrook has been well spent. My reading buddies and I shared Dr. Seuss books, R2-D2 adventures (that's Star Wars), and biographies about American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Sometimes we were grossed out by vampire stories. Sometimes we laughed about the adventures of Elephant & Piggie, a delightful series by Mo Willems. There never seems to be enough time to enjoy all of the books in the reading room. My two hours and seventeen minutes on Fridays, from 11 a.m. to precisely 1:17 p.m., have been an absolute delight.

To my reading buddies: Have fun and enjoy some good books this summer. See you in September. To everyone else: I encourage you to get to know their local schools. You will be positively surprised by the children who are eager to share a book with you.

Nancy Fenton is a member of St. Mark's on the Hill Episcopal Church. Her email is nfenton1021@gmail.com.

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