Thursday, September 27, 2007

Getting Oriented

I would have thought that reading countless books to my two children as they grew up would be all the training I would need to read aloud to children in homeless shelters. As I attended the orientation training for my newest volunteer activity, I began to realize this was not going to be quite the same.

I walked into a room of 17 other volunteers, fully expecting to find mostly people like myself who were retired and had the time necessary to devote to volunteer activities. But instead these were mostly people 20 years younger than I was who were still very active in a variety of careers. The one thing we all had in common was a love of reading that was obvious as we went around the table and named our favorite children’s book. I mentioned the Roald Dahl books, remembering quite well the year we read them all.

The coordinator opened the session by stating that the one factor that seems to most influence a child’s success in school is exposure to books and specifically to reading aloud. Whereas many children enter kindergarten having spent 1700 hours being read to by their parents, many lower-income families have spent an average of only 25 hours reading to their pre-school children.

The Reading Connection has been in existence for 15 years and now serves 14 sites in Northern Virginia and DC. Four nights a week volunteers at each of these sites spend an hour reading to the children and doing some sort of project with them all centered around the theme for the month. This month’s theme, for example, is “monsters” and you can guess that the Maurice Sendak book “Where the Wild Things Are” is a favorite. An individual volunteer has only one shift per month. But the book selection and “activity” is coordinated by the team to which that person is assigned. I had never envisioned reading to children involving so much organization and bureaucracy.

In addition to hearing books read aloud, each child receives a bag (made by a volunteer) containing books and a box of art supplies. Children are still eligible to receive free books after they move out of the homeless shelter.

As we talked about the importance of planning and doing a test-read ahead of time, I found myself thinking about the reality of what I might find the first time I was sent to read aloud. Would I have to spend more time dealing with behavior issues than in reading my chosen books? What if the children didn’t speak English and couldn’t understand the words I was speaking? What if the age range was so great that no book would be appropriate for everyone? What if I wasn’t sensitive enough to the circumstances that had landed my young audience in this situation? What if reading to my own children hadn’t prepared me for this task after all?

Then I remembered taking Santiago and his brother Jerry to the library in Oxon Hill. I remembered reading to them and realized although they weren’t homeless, they were very much in need of hearing English read to them and I had done just fine.

The next issue will be which site I get assigned to. They are desperate for volunteers for the 3 DC sites, which are all in Anacostia. I’m not crazy about driving alone to that area of the city at night, but I know those children need to be read to.

But before I can be assigned anywhere, the staff must call my references! That’s right, there’s a background check for this volunteer job to read to children. Yikes! I hope my friends say good things about me.

I have a feeling this is going to be a job I come to love. Reading has the potential to open doors to these children who have already experienced the harsh realities of life at a young age. I want to make a difference for them.


Blogger Pauline said...

good for you - reading aloud is a pleasure for both listener and reader. I read aloud to my second graders every day and go once a month to an open mic session in the next town over. I even read aloud what I've written, knowing things strike me differently when heard. Have fun!

6:39 AM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

It's going to be so interesting to hear stories once you begin your work. Bravo!

8:24 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

The main problem I have with reading to my kids is that we never seem to want to do it at the same time. As well, they associate reading with bedtime, so reading to them in the afternoon is always problematic. (ok, it is true, I used to read to Jason in the afternoon just before his nap - which he always insisted he did not need).

I have never read to other children, so I wonder what the experience would be like. Lots of pictures help (dinosaurs are big with Jason and princesses are big with Tania). A story that Tania was amazed with when I read it to her was The Princess Mouse - although, her stock favourites were always Rapunzel, The Twelve Dancing Princesses and Thumbelina. Jason will take anything with a dinosaur, he also likes Jack and the Beanstalk and Lazy Jack.

Hope you and the kids have fun.

8:49 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- Of your second graders, is it obvious which ones are read to at home? The woman last night said some children come to school for the first time not even knowing how to turn the pages of a book -- how very sad!

Reya -- It will be interesting. I wish I could talk you or someone else in DC into reading with me at one of the Anacostia sites. I would probably do it if I knew I had company.

Richard -- I will ask you for book recommendations when the theme is dinasaurs or fantasy (princesses). It sounds like you have a lot of experience with those topics!

9:50 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

What a great idea! I've been thinking about getting involved with a literacy program but this just sounds like fun. I hope you enjoy!

1:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

barbara - reading is always a worthy endeavour (despite the bureacracy of organizations!)

I briefly worked for a company that taught reading enrichment programs in Los Angelos many many years ago. I had to drive all over Southern calif. - different ethnic/socio economic groups. The second class was always 'Parents Night' which I dreaded (and still do...) But as a young 20 something, I especially felt the keen lack of experience. I had a 'script' I was to follow. But facing all those cute kindergarten / first grade faces and the expectant, stern stares of their parents, I made the bold move to chuck the script and just speak from the heart.

I shared with them bits and pieces of my own dificult childhood - and how books saved me: how reading allowed me a place to escape to, away from .... and how through the following years the fluency in reading helped me academically, helped me get into college.... and yes, i cried. There were not too many dry eyes left when I finished.

So i learned that sharing from the heart is always best especially when you passionately believe in the topic you are discussing. And I passionately believe in the benefits of reading. Like learning music, or loving to run, it is an activity that you can take with you, anywhere, for the rest of your life.

Props to you for volunteering!

1:46 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

This activity is so worthwhile.....Would the group consider holding these readings in a public library in the neighborhood? Or would it be too difficult for the children to get there? This might alleviate some of your night travel anxiety. Not only that but the children would get used to going to the library...perhaps even include their first library card in the visit. This assumes these are not sheltered children but children who live in apartments or houses.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

I know libraries are for all people but unfortunately to have a card I think one needs an address which is why I made the last comment.


1:54 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- I would try to twist your arm into joining me in Anacostia if I thought there was space in your busy life for one more activity!

RDG -- What a touching story. I do imagine the plan and the script often get chucked out the window to address the reality of the moment. I think this will be an adventure.

Kate -- The idea is to read to the children at night, much the same as we did to our children when they were young. It wouldn't be practical to move them all to a library, although it would be a lot safer for the readers. I'm sure this will be the least of my problems once I get established in this program.

2:41 PM  
Blogger media concepts said...

That's great that you're doing something so productive and worthwhile. No sitting around eating chips and watching Oprah for you -- at least not that we know about!

2:56 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Matt -- OMG, you've found out about the chips! But no Oprah, not just yet. And bear in mind, I've only gone to an orientation session. I still have to pass their muster to be accepted as a reader.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Pauline said...

Barbara, yes you can tell which children have been read to and which ones are encouraged to read at home. The percentage of read-to children is low compared to the number that are not.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

There's always space for one more activity.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Pauline -- What a shame! What income level are most of the children you teach?

Kristin -- If you are really interested, take a look at their website and see if you want to pursue it. I think we would make a great reading team. Reading happens only if 2 volunteers show up (as scheduled); that's how they deal with liability protection.

Interestingly enough, I just ran into the bubbly coordinator who taught my orientation class when I was in the Baileys Crossroads Trader Joes. I told her I was working on recruiting people for Anacostia! She seemed genuinely pleased.

8:11 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I'll check it out when I get back next week.

12:18 AM  
Blogger riseoutofme said...

What a great thing to do!

Sharing something that you love.I've always loved reading and being read to ... transported me away to a different world....

Just what these kids need, by the sound of it ... Good for you ..

5:37 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Rise -- I'll let you know how it all turns out!

6:03 PM  

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