In the spirit of giving, what better gift can we give a child than the gift of time? The Reading Buddy program offers adults an opportunity to share one hour each week with young readers.  A student fortunate enough to have a “buddy” looks forward to the undivided attention they will receive from an adult who cares about them. For many students this is a gift they will long cherish.

putnam lieb logoGreeting the twinkling eyes of a first grader each week, as he challenges me to see how many rhyming words he can write on his white board, is as big a treat for me as it is for 7-year-old, Jetty. Being a buddy over the years at Roosevelt Elementary School is an experience I value. I always leave more energized after reading with Jetty and my other two “buddies” than I was when I signed in at the office.

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Marnie McGrath enjoys her time reading with her second grade Reading Buddy Mariah Mejia.

Even though the Reading Buddy program has a long history in national education circles, its very existence in many local schools was threatened during the recent downturn in the economy. When Jennifer Thompson, RSVP Program Coordinator at United Way of Thurston County, saw this happening, she stepped in.

Thompson was instrumental in organizing the Reading Buddy Program for Thurston and surrounding counties three years ago. Jennifer created an orientation model, placement goals, and follow-up newsletters for local volunteers. In August, I attended one of the 18 orientation sessions Jennifer conducted in 2015.

A group of about 20 interested volunteers sat around the conference table at The Olympian. We shared a little about our motivations to volunteer. Several folks were retired professionals hoping to give back to the community while others were still working and looked forward to volunteering on their lunch hour. All the paperwork was provided as well as strategies for working with children at the elementary level.

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Tony Philippsen and first grader, Josiah Sychanthong enjoy a story in a first grade reading book.

Roger Neilson was among the volunteers that day. He signed up to be a Reading Buddy at L.P. Brown Elementary School in West Olympia. Checking in with Roger after a few months on the job, he said, “I’m so impressed with how hard the students try and how well they are doing.” Each Wednesday, Roger spends an hour at the school working with second graders. He noted, “Jennifer’s orientation was key to my success in being able to step right into my Reading Buddy role on the first day.”

Marnie McGrath, a volunteer at Roosevelt, also attended that August orientation. She appreciated Principal Sean Shaughnessy’s additional orientation in October, which made her feel very comfortable at Roosevelt. “I am volunteering on my lunch hour,” Marnie said. “I do not have children and have not been around children much, but because reading is so important I was interested in being a buddy.”

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Norma Creighton uses her years of experience as a Reading Buddy helping Vivian Krom, a fourth grader at Roosevelt

When her third grade student asked, “Why are you helping me with reading?” She responded, ”I majored in library science, but work in research, so I wanted to share my love of books.” He thought he could help her out, “I think one of the librarians at another school is retiring, so you might try to get that job.”

No doubt about it, the volunteers receive as much joy as they give. Principal Shaughnessy said, “Just think about it – we have 15 reading buddies, and each buddy works with the same three students each week, so that is 45 students who have special attention all year long.”

The long-term success of the reading buddy program at Roosevelt owes a debt of gratitude to Linda Gaschen, who as a parent volunteer herself, took over the organization of the program after the Reading Coordinator funding was eliminated a few years ago. Linda commented, “I am happy that United Way has stepped in to add to our pool of volunteers, but we also depend on our ‘old timers’ like Wally O’Shea, Tony Phillippsen, and Norma Creighton, who have clocked hundreds of hours in the program.

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Tony Philippsen reads with third grader Ayanna Ragland.

Wally and Norma have both volunteered for over ten years as Reading Buddies at Roosevelt. Norma was busy reading with fourth grader Vivian Krom, but paused to explain, “I am the only one left out of a group of four or five of my friends, but I feel I have a wonderful relationship with the children.” Watching her in action, I have to agree.

After Tony Phillippsen finished reading with first grader Josiah Sychanthong, he told me, “My daughter encouraged me to volunteer when my grandchildren attended Roosevelt, and I am still here.” Having male buddies like Tony and Roger are so significant for many young readers.

If you are interested in joining the wonderful Reading Buddy volunteers, check in with Jennifer Thompson at United Way. You will not only enrich your own life, but the lives of the children who are waiting for their own Reading Buddy.

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