Each week, volunteers go to second grade classrooms throughout Lamar County and read stories to the young students, with the goal of improving their listening comprehension and growing their love of books. But for the volunteers, the process can be just as rewarding.
The reading sessions are part of the Reading to the Future Program, now in its 11th year, offered through the Lamar County Coalition of Education, Business and Industry. The program asks community volunteers to “adopt” a second grade class and read aloud to them once a week for the entire school year.
“It really helps the students develop a love of reading, it helps them with their reading skills and it can be incredibly helpful for children who maybe don’t have a lot of books at home,” program coordinator Sabrina Rosson said.
For volunteer Jeanne Waller, who has participated in the program every year since its inception, the experience has been just as rewarding for her as it has been for the students, she said.
“It’s so rewarding, it’s hard to put into words just how wonderful it is,” Waller said. “Over the year, you form a bond with the kids and really grow attached to them.”
Waller remembered the final reading day of the previous school year, when two girls ran up, hugged Waller and told her they’d miss her.
“That really meant a lot to me,” she said. “You get so much more out of it by going and reading to them than they get, I think. That’s how rewarding it is.”
For Waller, the best part of the experience is seeing the children’s faces light up and their eyes fill with wonderment when she reads stories that connect with them.
Paul Allen, President of the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce and a reading volunteer, has been a volunteer for five years, said he makes personal connections with the students each year.
“I get to know them, talk to them after I read and just connect with them more than just reading a book and then leaving,” Allen said.
Allen has also enjoyed the experience, as he’s been able to read to classes taught by his daughter, he said.
“I read to her class at Blossom, and before that she was at Justiss (Elementary School) and I read to her class then,” he said.
While not required, many volunteers do more than simply read a story to the class. Waller follows her stories up with questions to test the students’ listening skills, and Allen said he will have a discussion with the students on the moral of the story when he’s finished reading.
The program reads to every second grade class in Lamar County, as well as Detroit and Clarksville, on a weekly basis, Rosson said. Individual volunteers can read week in and week out, but groups and organizations can also volunteer as a team and take turns reading.
“If you have a group of four and you want to volunteer together, you can trade off and each read once a month,” she said.
Joan Mathis, a former educator at PJC who has served for years as a volunteer, said the program can instill a love of reading in children that doesn’t just impact that child’s life but even have a ripple effect in future generations.
“If you read to one generation, they’ll read to the next, and it goes on and on,” she said at a volunteer reception Wednesday evening. “And I know that from my family.”
In total, a minimum of 33 volunteers are needed to pair with every second grade classroom, and Rosson said several volunteers are needed to reach that number.
“We are definitely in need of volunteers, because I’ve had at least five people who would read in the past tell me that they can’t do it this year,” she said.
To become a reader, people can call the coalition at 903-782-0323 to register as a volunteer, or they can call the elementary school they want to read at, Rosson said. There isn’t a deadline to register by, and people can sign up to volunteer at any point during the school year.
“I think anyone thinking about doing it should just do it,” Waller said. “If you want to feel like you’re doing something worthwhile, you’ll want to try this. You get more reward out of this than just about anything else.”