Soldiers in fight for literacy; Program: Notre Dame-AmeriCorps trains volunteers committed to a year of service to teach reading.


WASHINGTON -- Combing her fingers through thick blades of grass, Susie Moore was reciting the plot from one of her favorite childhood books, "Bembelman's Bakery."

"My mom used to read it with a particular accent which made me remember the story," she said of Melinda Green's tale of a brother and sister who decide to bake a loaf of bread, but use too much yeast.

Moore's eyes seemed to pop out as she raised her arm and broadly gestured the shape of the bulging bread, telling the story to five of her peers.

That enthusiasm for reading is what the 22-year-old Moore, and her audience, hope to instill in children and adults as they embark on a year of national service teaching reading as full-time Notre Dame-AmeriCorps (NDA) volunteers.

Moore, from Queens, N.Y., and a recent graduate of Skidmore College, was sharing her story on the campus of Trinity College in Washington, where about 110 volunteers -- "members," as NDA calls them -- were attending orientation and workshops in teaching before heading last week to assignments in seven cities across the nation.

In Baltimore, NDA members will work as foot soldiers in the cause of literacy in more than a dozen schools, Head Start programs and job-training or social outreach centers -- Moore, for example, at St. Veronica's Head Start. Most will receive a stipend of $8,730 for living expenses and, at the end of the year, a $4,725 education grant.

And they will have a chance to influence the future of the young people they work with in low-income neighborhoods.

"Reading is the foundation of learning, and without reading you aren't able to control your own destiny," said Laura Ardito, 21, a recent Cornell University graduate who will be working with children at Baltimore's City Springs Elementary School.

"Reading will give you new ideas, new perspectives and introduce you to new cultures and places, even if you have never been past your own block," Ardito said.

Another volunteer, Baltimore native Janell Walker, 33, will be working with parents in the St. Jerome's Head Start program -- and the grant will help her attend college for the first time.

"I want to encourage parents to help their children with their homework and to take their children to the library," Walker said.

Elizabeth A. LaManna, 26, an elementary education major from Eastern Michigan University, taught for two years in a suburban school district. She took a pay cut to sign on with NDA -- as did many of the new members.

"You don't get into teaching for the money," said LaManna, who was looking forward to the experience of teaching in an urban environment.

LaManna said she packed her entire collection of children's books upon learning of her assignment to teach reading at St. Mary of the Assumption parochial school in Govans. But she quickly realized she could not carry all of them.

"I repacked. I brought a lot of my favorite books," she said -- notable among them "Chick-A Chick-A Boom Boom" by Bill Martin, which uses repetition to teach children the letters of the alphabet.

The NDA program -- a partnership of the Baltimore-based Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur's Mission Volunteer Program and AmeriCorps -- is entering its fifth year and includes 153 participants in several national service programs under its umbrella.

They range in age from the just-out-of-college early 20s to twin 69-year-old Notre Dame sisters from Cincinnati, who will be working in an elementary school there.

In Washington, they attended workshops covering such issues as conflict resolution, parental involvement, cultural diversity, teaching and tutoring, along with spirituality and the ethic of service.

Their instructor in the tutoring workshop was Raine Mullan, a reading specialist who coordinates Baltimore-area church efforts on behalf of youths. She was quizzing a group of 21 volunteers after having them read a passage in a thick yellow manual.

Social worker Nichole Fontaine, 24, who took a leave from a job in North Dakota to give a year to the NDA program, found herself remembering her grade school days as she hesitated in giving an answer -- afraid of being wrong, she said.

"That's OK," Mullan told her, adding this advice for their new roles as tutors and teachers: "Always ask questions with choices and find something right with wrong answers. You have to teach to the strength and bolster the weakness."

Fontaine, who will spend the year in the St. Jerome's Head Start program, vowed to use that method so that her students won't share a fear of answering.

"I'll tell them that anything and everything you say is OK," she said.

Pub Date: 9/19/99

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