Reader Roundup

United Way offers way for volunteers to unlock world of reading

Nyana Hill, left, and Katelynn Stockton, a fifth grade student at Walland Elementary, spend some time together reading in the library at the school. Hill is a reading volunteer at Walland.

Nyana Hill, left, and Katelynn Stockton, a fifth grade student at Walland Elementary, spend some time together reading in the library at the school. Hill is a reading volunteer at Walland.

Volunteer reader Nyana Hill says the most gratifying aspect of working with a child on his or her reading is that moment when the child “unlocks” a word they thought they couldn’t comprehend.

“Their faces light up when they recognize what they thought they could not read,” Hill said. “They unlock it, and their faces just brighten.”

United Way of Blount County wants bright faces -- and gratified volunteers -- placed all over the cities and county for one special week in February. United Way is sponsoring Reader Roundup, a reading blitz in all the schools the week of Feb. 22-26. The goal is to “unlock” the potential by recruiting volunteers who will read to students at elementary schools throughout the Alcoa, Blount County and Maryville school systems.

Regina Jennings is chair of the United Way of Blount County “Year of Caring” committee, which developed Reader Roundup. She says the reading blitz is designed to promote early literacy and childhood development.

“We are trying to encourage volunteers to become role models for literacy in the schools,” Jennings said. “We know there are great programs already in the schools to promote and encourage reading. But they need volunteers.”

Jennings said Reader Roundup wants to fill every slot in the school’s reading programs for that last week in February so that volunteers will get a taste of both the need and the satisfaction that comes with helping a child read.

Jessica Wallace, associate for Community Impact with United Way of Blount County, said United Way has contacts in each school system to direct volunteers to the right people who can plug them into classrooms for Reader Roundup. “We hope it turns into a regular thing. We hope to develop relationships between businesses and schools so employees spend time reading in school,” she said. “The goal is to promote literacy and support young children.”

Nyana Hill is one of those volunteers already plugged into the system. She is a volunteer reader at Walland Elementary School where she also works as a teacher’s assistant.

Katelynn Stockton, 10, is one of the fifth grade students who enjoys having Hill as a volunteer to read with her.

“It’s cool to read with someone,” Katelynn said. “You get to share feelings with someone, and you can ask them questions about what you’re reading. It’s really fun to read.”

Hill is just one of many individuals in the community who volunteer their time to read. Herb Meyer, chair of the Imagination Library program for the Kiwanis Club of Maryville, is one of about 10 club members who volunteer at elementary schools throughout the county. Meyer puts in time each week reading to first graders at Montvale Elementary.

“It’s amazing to see how they progress from September to May,” he said. “They’re struggling with words and might only know three-letter words in September, and the volunteer ends up doing most of reading. But by this time of the year, they’re reading to us.”

Jennings said many civic organizations such as the Kiwanis Clubs in both Alcoa and Maryville have members who volunteer to read in the schools.

“Some civic clubs and businesses already have relationships with schools,” said Wallace. “We encourage members to go to those schools during the Reader Roundup.”

Jennings said this is a great opportunity for retirees. “There are retired folks who want to donate their time and don’t know how.” Reader Roundup, said Jennings, gives them a chance to check out the program in a nearby school or where a grandchild may attend. For Reader Roundup, United Way is looking for a 30 minute commitment.

“It’s not a lot of time - 30 minutes from start to finish,” said Jennings. She also explained that this committee started out working during “Day of Caring,” where employees from area businesses and other individuals volunteered to help spruce up non-profit agencies or organizations that serve the community. A year ago, the “Day of Caring” was changed to a “Year of Caring” to foster more community volunteerism.

“We started in August of ’09, and this is the third project of that initiative,” Jennings said. Other initiatives have included the CANpaign to help area food organizations being hurt by the sluggish economy and the creation of a Wonder Trail at Sandy Springs Park.

“Food pantries were having problems and needed food,” Jennings explained. “That was one way to get businesses involved.”

Jennings said Wallace spearheaded another Year of Caring project to create a Wonder Trail at Sandy Springs Park. The Wonder Trail provides signs and activities for children to stop and complete at each station along a path. It is designed to help children developmentally and with school readiness.

Wallace said Reader Roundup fit the mold of large community projects like CANpaign and Wonder Trail. “We wanted to focus on young children, and we thought of the idea of encouraging adults to volunteer to read in schools. We thought that was important,” Wallace said.

Hill agrees. “I think it’s a very important skill for people to have in order to be able to get along in life. My heart goes out to those who do not know how to read,” she said.

For children, Hill said the challenge can be keeping kids motivated. “They need a reason to read. I try to encourage them,” she said.

Jennings said literacy is important because the more someone can read, the more knowledge they have. “You can’t take away knowledge,” she said. “You can lose your job and lots of things, but you can not lose your knowledge.”

Jennings said it is important to help youngsters early in their lives because many don’t get that help at home. “Sometimes we forget that. You just think everybody is going to learn how to read, but that is not true,” she said.

Hill said anyone can volunteer to help with a school’s reading program. “It does not matter what age you are or where you are in life, this is something you can actually do,” Hill said.

The payback is great, said Hill. “The children appreciate the time you spend with them. They equate that with caring about them. You give a little of yourself, and you receive a blessing 20 times over.”

To participate in Reader Roundup, click on liveunitedblount.org/readerroundup or call 865-982-2251. United Way will access what you can do during that week or on a more regular volunteer basis and make the connection with an area school.

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