It probably wouldn’t shock you too much to learn that many children struggle to read. However, it does surprise many that there is a large portion of children in Alachua County that are falling behind reading standards. According to United Way, 70% of 3rd graders in the community need reading support, and the challenges of the learning process cause many students to become discouraged in school. In many cases, this issue is related to a wider problem of economic hardship; our county has a high number of low-income students. These children are at risk of lagging behind in reading and school in general–and even graduating high school late. Food programs, tutoring, and community support all work together to tackle these issues, and ReadingPals is key in making sure children are not forgotten.

Source: United Way of North Central Florida

        Standardized testing, homework, and drills often leave struggling readers behind; without personalized help or recognition, the students aren’t able to achieve high levels of proficiency in reading comprehension. What they need is one-on-one support—and that is what the ReadingPals program offers. By leveraging volunteers that are willing to spend an hour a week with their ‘pal,’ the program is able to focus on each individual student, rather than a wider and less personalized approach. The key component is that volunteers don’t have to have any experience or special skills to participate—just an ability to read, and time reading will be more effective than any homework assignment could ever be. Run through United Way, the program is flourishing in elementary schools and afterschool programs all over the county, but especially in Gainesville. As a lifelong reader and book enthusiast, I signed up right away to be a mentor.

        After completing an application and a short online training, I headed to the United Way office to complete a two-hour orientation. Most of the other volunteers were students at UF, and the coordinator, Rahkiah Brown, studied Family, Youth, and Community Sciences at the university! It was quite inspiring to see the students come together from diverse backgrounds—from biology to architecture—to take action on an issue that isn’t confined to subject borders. Though university students were mostly present at my orientation date, many senior citizens and adults also volunteer their time.

According to Mrs. Brown, just one session a week with a child provides one-on-one support he or she rarely receives; this makes reading a little less daunting. In addition to tutoring and reading together, the adult also acts as a mentor and friend, and is encouraged to devote part of the session to learning about their student, playing games provided by the program, and facilitating enrichment activities that pertain to the book being read. Many ReadingPals form personal connections, and often continue with each other for a year. Rather than being a chore, kids begin seeing their mentoring sessions as a fun activity and a way to earn prizes (there is a treasure chest!) and get personal attention. And the mentors? Apart from revisiting nostalgic childhood books, mentors are able to make a measurable impact in the life of an individual and be part of a larger movement to improve literacy in our very own community. That is one hour well spent!

        Of course, it is not all fun and games—mentors must also keep in mind that reading may be difficult and frustrating for these kids. Even if they are interested in a story, the vocabulary and unfamiliar spellings are enough to make kids dread opening a book! The job of the mentor is to make this process easier and more enjoyable, as well as help cultivate life-long readers. To aid volunteers, ReadingPals offers plenty of resources, including on-site staff and plenty of books, games, and activities to keep things interesting. Mentors gain uncomparable experiences as well; the skills gained from planning the weekly session, communicating effectively, and working with children are invaluable. Many of the volunteers even signed up for multiple sessions per week! I am excited to start at a local elementary school in a few weeks, and am already thinking of questions to ask my ReadingPal and what games we can play at the end of the session. Stay tuned for more articles on my experiences and lessons learned!