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April 3, 2013
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Helping Hands: Word by word, page by page, spreading the love of reading

A morning stillness hangs over the Upper Blue Elementary library, save for one corner. Beside a pile of books sit a man and a boy. Their heads are bent, both intent on the pages of the open book between them. The boy reads aloud, stopping occasionally at a difficult word, which the man encourages him to sound out.

This is a scene repeated nearly every morning throughout the school district, thanks to the Summit County Rotary Club's Reading Buddies program. Volunteers commit portions of their weekly mornings or afternoons to spend time reading one-on-one with school children.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to share my love of reading with the kids," said Scott Toepfer, who spends Wednesday mornings at Upper Blue Elementary.

Toepfer, who works as a mountain weather and avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, has been a Reading Buddy since the beginning of the school year. In that time, he has worked with many children, and gotten to know a handful of "regulars," including Van Morgan, who came into the library carrying an armful of books, and Levi Edwards, who had his book opened and started reading before Toepfer had even taken off his jacket.

"They're all really keen," said Toepfer.

Now when he walks in the classroom, the kids immediately point and raise their hands, hoping to get chosen to go read. "It's pretty cool," he said, grinning. "That enthusiasm and honesty and trust just doesn't exist out there in the rest of the world. So it's got to be one of the most rewarding things that I've ever done."

Reading Buddies is the brainchild of Summit County local and Rotary Club member Mary Anne Johnston, who started the program in 2009. Her background in education and personal love of reading have helped move it forward.

"I'm just passionate about literacy and I was just trying to think of a way to have our Rotary more involved in the schools," she said, of the initial motivation for the program. The Family Literacy Fun Fair was a success and many people around her often spoke of how much they enjoyed reading to children, so the two ideas just clicked. "I thought it would be really fun to go ahead and start a program where we get volunteers from the community."

Since then, the program has grown to include nearly 40 volunteers, both in and out of Rotary Club, who dedicate their time each week to read to the children.

"That's a huge number of people. I never dreamed we would have that many," Johnston said.

While she's pleased with the amount of response, the main goal is always on the kids and improving their literacy.

"I didn't think about numbers so much, I was just thinking about having people who are really excited and passionate about reading encourage kids to be the same and to help motivate and in some way inspire them to become the same kind of passionate readers," she said.

Each reading buddy seems to have an entire arsenal of stories about their student buddies' reading successes - improvements made, words learned, confidence gained - and all of them describe the students' enthusiastic reactions to their presence.

"Whenever the children that I customarily read to aren't there, and the teacher asks for volunteers, almost every had in the class goes up," said volunteer Karen Terrell. "So clearly they anticipate that one-on-one time, which I think is pretty neat."

More than just reading to the child, the volunteers connect with them on a personal level, learning about their families, their interests and what they did over the weekend.

"It's been really nice," Terrell said, of developing relationships with her reading buddies. One second-grade girl in particular now jumps up and hugs her at the beginning of every session.

The boys aren't shy either.

"I'd been reading with Levi for about a month and a half," said Toepfer, smiling at the memory, "and then one Wednesday I walked into the classroom and he just came up and hugged me, and I just about fell over."

A passion for reading, for literacy, links the Reading Buddies volunteers to the cause.

"Everyone needs to be a reader," Johnston said. "I just think that if you're not literate by the time you're in third grade you are really disadvantaged, you're really hampered from continuing to learn. After the third grade, you're reading to learn, not just learning to read, and it's just critical that you feel confident and learn to enjoy the process of reading. It's so critical in terms of being able to be a confident, competent person and in this day and age, illiteracy is just a dead end for people."

Kerry Buhler, principal at Upper Blue, agrees.

"The community readers make a huge difference for our kids at Upper Blue. We've really noticed a difference in their confidence, in their desire to read and in their connections with adults, and how every time a child comes across an adult or an adult comes across a child, they're building the assets of that child," she said. "So we really can't underestimate the impact that having these wonderful volunteers have had on our kids, not only through reading, but for their whole lives. We're really thrilled and we're always looking for more."

Terrell's favorite part of reading with the students, she said, is seeing the moment that they learn or understand something.

"It's incredible to watch them light up as they comprehend what they are reading," she said. "You can really see it, they almost jump in their chairs, that moment of getting it."

"I think it's a tremendous opportunity for children and adults," she added.

In addition to teaching literacy, the program hopes to instill a love of books in the children it reaches.

"I think it just becomes a part of who they really are, so it's really nice to encourage that and make it something that they want to do forever," Toepfer said. "And if the kids can have fun at it, then it's something that they'll want to do and keep doing forever. There's a lot of good books out there."

Toepfer and Terrell both plan to continue volunteering with the program and highly recommend it to others. The hardest part, Toepfer thinks, will be the interim between the end of this school year and the start of the next.

"I'm going to be a little lost this summer," he admitted.


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The Summit Daily Updated Apr 3, 2013 11:49PM Published Apr 3, 2013 11:45PM Copyright 2013 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.