When I started volunteering at SMART in 1998, I was a young reporter just starting out in journalism. I’d been asked to do a story on the SMART program in Cornelius, Oregon, which has a high number of Spanish-speaking students as well as a significant number of students on free and reduced lunches (an indicator of poverty level). As a college student, I’d previously volunteered in a kindergarten in my home town of Sandy, so I was already used to working with young children. Given that I make my living as a writer, encouraging students to read seemed like a natural fit for me. So I signed up for the program and began reading to students right away.
When I switched jobs and moved to Corvallis, I immediately searched out the SMART branch here, and found that Lincoln School had the combination of Spanish-speaking students (I’m a bilingual reader) and low income level that I was searching for, so I signed up and began volunteering there on an annual basis. I started in the fall of 2000, and I’ve been volunteering there ever since, except for one year during which time Lincoln could not support the program. Happily, it was re-instated the next year.
Within the past two years, the program has switched to a kindergarten-only program, and every single kindergartner is now paired with two SMART volunteers during the week. While this was at first a large adjustment to the volunteers and meant that instead of two children an hour, we sometimes had up to six, we quickly learned how to shift gears, and have realized that SMART can now make an impact on a much larger swatch of students at a crucial age.
While I’ve had many experiences over the years as children have transformed in front of my eyes, one I can relate from my most recent SMART experience is the story of a young native Spanish speaker with very little English ability. She had been labeled by other volunteers, as well as her teacher, as someone who was struggling to connect, who could not make herself understood, and who in general seemed disconnected from the whole process.
While I found the student to be very soft spoken and withdrawn at first, by working with her calmly each week, helping her reign in her wandering attention span, and letting her feel that she had control over what we read and how each session went, she quickly gained confidence and at one point, began asking to read the same book over and over again, whereas in the beginning she could barely pay attention to a few pages.
The connection was so strong that when the classroom schedule shifted and she was moved to another volunteer, she at first refused to be transplanted to a new reader and kept returning to me. We eventually sorted her out and she was able to transition to another volunteer, but I feel like she gained enough confidence and enough ability to sit and concentrate on a book, that she will be successful as she learns to read, both in English and in Spanish.
Some children who come to SMART have no books in their homes. They often have never had another adult, other than their teacher, sit down to read with them. We help them discover the joy and magic of a good story, and that’s a gift that will impact their entire lives. I truly believe that the gift of reading can save lives, because it offers us a world of information, joy and connection that we would otherwise lose out on, and every time a SMART volunteer sits with a child and shares that love of reading, we make the future a better, brighter place.