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Westminster resident's story time connects with kids at shelters, hospitals

Suelyn Rivera, who lives in Westminster, knows the transformative power of reading to children. As a media specialist at Carrolltowne Elementary School in Sykesville, her job is to order books for the school library, work with teachers, read aloud to students in the school, and share her love of reading and libraries with the community.

"One day, one of my students didn't show up because he was getting a biopsy," she recalled. Rivera had been planning a story time at the library that day, and she wished she could somehow bring the experience to the absent student.

That moment inspired her to create Storytime Connection, a nonprofit organization that brings story times and gives books to children in homeless shelters and hospitals.

"My goal is to bring a smile to a child one story at a time," said Rivera, who officially formed the organization last July under the umbrella of the Community Foundation of Carroll County.

For nearly a year, she has been visiting the Women and Children's Shelter of the Human Services Program of Carroll County every two weeks, reading to children who are typically between the ages of 3 and 10, she said. Rivera has also offered story times at the Intact Family Shelter, and she is working to expand the service to other shelters and hospitals.

Rivera arrives with 10 or so books, sets them up, and asks the children which ones they want to hear. She then spends about a half-hour reading stories, stopping frequently to ask and answer questions. Thanks to donations from Random House, Capstone Publishers and Green Valley Press, she is able to give an age-appropriate book to each child before she leaves.

The Human Services Program, a community action agency and nonprofit organization with a budget of $3.5 million, has five year-round shelters in Carroll County, and a sixth that is open in the winter, said Lisa Aughenbaugh, associate director of development and community relations.

She said the story time program will probably be expanded to other shelters, since it is working well so far.

"The whole goal was that once we got it working well in the Women and Children's Shelter, I said she [Rivera] would definitely have the option to expand her volunteer service over to the family shelter," said Aughenbaugh.

"I spoke with the shelter manager [Amy Rupp, program coordinator for the 25-bed shelter], and they are very happy," she continued. "They said the kids enjoy the story time. They found the storytelling truly captures the children's attention, and they're enjoying that they get a book of their own to keep. Amy said specifically that she's very impressed with Suelyn and her positive attitude and her ability to keep the children engaged."

High school students can earn service hours by helping, Rivera said. One such student is Jackson Cole, 16, a rising senior at Westminster High School, who has been volunteering since January, he said.

"I was interested in helping the community and getting my service hours, and my mom told me there was an opportunity at Storytime," he said.

Before Jackson began, he met with Rivera, who taught him how to read the books so the children stay interested. "We talked about how it's important to keep the kids interacting," he said. "They can often zone out, kind of. They start to focus on other things while you're reading to them. So we try to make it interactive to keep their attention."

Though the children are in families that are going through hard times, Jackson said they seemed like other children he knows, with "nice personalities." The number of children varies each week, he said. Some weeks there are as many as six, others as few as two.

"It's definitely nice to help the kids that need some attention and support," he said. Reading the stories gives them "time for joy, I guess."

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