As part of SMART Reading’s 20th anniversary efforts in 2011-2012, we launched a story collection campaign to invite individuals — volunteers, educators, parents, former SMART Reading students — to share about their experiences with SMART Reading. We received a great response and gathered more than 100 fabulous stories about the many ways in which SMART Reading is improving lives, big and small. Enjoy!

Story from:

Michelle Gilmore, Multnomah County

I had the PLEASURE of reading with one of the most dynamic kids I have ever met! Her name is Arianna and she seems to know everyone in her school-the older students, the cool kids, the younger students, all of the teachers, everyone. We read together when she was in 2nd and 3rd grades. Every time she was absent or her school had a break, I’d ask her what she did since I had last seen her. The answer was the same every time, “thought about you.” The whole summer between 2nd and 3rd grades, “thought about you.” Then, she’d look up and tease one of the older skater kids, “hey Rob, you gonna give me a hug?” Then, “hi Ms. Benson.” She made me feel like the coolest volunteer in the school! As the SMART Manager that oversees her school’s SMART program, I am still in her school several times each year. Whenever her class walks by the SMART space (she’ll be in 6th grade this year!), her face lights up when she sees me. She leaves the line of students to run over and give me a quick hello and a hug. I tell her how great it is to see her and ask what she has been up to. After all these years, “thinking about you.”

Story from:

Darcie Esch, Multnomah County

Imagine no one read to you as a child. Not because your parents or caregivers couldn’t read, or didn’t think it was important. But because they were deaf. One of my first “SMART kids” was just that, a 2nd grader who had no one at home reading to him. I hope the way I read to him made him want to discover books himself. And think of the words children in your universe learned simply because they pointed a finger and you gave the object a name. Just another wonderful thing SMART can do.

Story from:

Wyatt S. Miles, Lane County

I spent some time in the SMART program for about a year while I lived in Roseburg, Ore. It was so much fun to sit down and read with the kids. The program directors were so amazing and had a real love for reading and even more for the children. I’ve never done volunteer work that left me feeling as good as I felt working with the SMART program. I always walked away with more than I gave, and that was before I’d loaded my pockets up with the free candy they gave us at the end of each day.

Three cheers for SMART and all the volunteers for making such a big difference in the lives of kids!

Story from:

Cleve Twitchell, Jackson County

I have been a SMART reader for 17 years. About eight years ago I was walking at the Rogue Valley Mall in Medford when a young man about 13 years old emerged from a store and gave me a high-five. I had no idea who he was at the time. Later I figured I must have read to him when he was in the first grade. I hadn’t changed. He had, but he remembered me.

Story from:

Cleve Twitchell, Jackson County

During the first year of SMART in Medford, I was reading to a young man in the hallway at Jackson School. A classmate of his went running by.
“No running in the hall,” shouted my student.
A few minutes later, my student asked if he could go to the restroom.
And, of course, he ran!

Story from:

Deborah Burley, Multnomah County

Because there’s no wrong way to read to a child.

It makes a lot of sense to me to be a volunteer for SMART. I know firsthand how SMART is changing lives and I know I am helping with that. I have been a SMART volunteer since 1994. I am very fortunate that the company I work with, The Standard, encourages their employees to volunteer. The Standard also has a Dollars for Doers program that recognizes employees for their community leadership and under the program they gave SMART $500 on my behalf. I know I make a big difference in the lives of children struggling to learn to read. When you start reading to a shy child at the beginning of the school year by the end of the year you can see they have more confidence in their reading ability. I love to watch their faces light up when I tell them they are doing a great job.

My philosophy is simple. There is no wrong way to read to a child. I never push the students, I just remain open and encouraging so they can explore what excites them. One of the students that I had was particularly fascinated with numbers. I work in an actuarial department so I encouraged the student to learn about math by giving her math problems. I noticed this was improving her reading, writing and listening skills as well. This has taught me that inspiring people of any age can be a realistic daily goal. The SMART program is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

Story from:

Denison Thomas, Crook County

I’m a retired physician, and I initially got involved in SMART because I have always been interested in children. It was my exposure to some other people who were involved with SMART that finally convinced me.

Over the years, about one student per year would impress me, I did have some favorites over the years. They were so eager and so interested in their books. I would ask them about books at home and in almost every case, if they were very poor readers they had few books at home and no one encouraged them to read.

What SMART does is so important; people who don’t read well are just left out of the loop. It’s terribly important that every child learn to read well and, if possible, develop a keen interest in books. I had children that had quite a library collection at the end of the year and they would recount the books to me – some could name them off, and could easily tell me which ones they had. I think this program reached a number of children, I suspect we did have an impact.

The one hour a week that I spent with SMART was by far the most profitable and interesting to me of any hour of the week that I spent. I looked forward to seeing those kids… it was a boost for them, I hope, and for me.

Story from:

Susie Wells, Hood River

In six years of coordinating for SMART, I have seen a lot of success. I worked with a lot of kids who had very little experience with English and communicating with adults. I think that is where we saw our greatest improvement. Kids became more confident and improved their communication and language skills. This also relates to their reading ability. Teachers would inform me about the improvements in their students’ reading skills and increased participation in the classroom.

A positive byproduct that coincides with SMART is the community building. The school where I worked had just been closed because of budget problems. Before this school closed down, it was really great to see members of our community come together and dedicate themselves to working with the students. Community members developed friendships with one and other. It was a great way for people to get to know each other. This is something that naturally happens with the SMART program. I know it is not the initial goal of the program, but it is another benefit of the program.

In all the time I have been involved with SMART, I have never heard a negative comment about it. From the staff, administrators, volunteers and students, everyone has always been extremely supportive. Because of that, it is a really great organization to work for.

Story from:

Maryann Fulton, Deschutes County

I started volunteering for SMART in 1998 at Tumalo Elementary; my husband joined me the next year. We frequently talked about the SMART program at Grandparents Day and encouraged the grandparents to volunteer.  Our own grandchildren live in Washington so it is difficult for us to participate in their school programs. Like us, they may be reading to someone else’s grandchild whose grandparents were not there to read to them.

What keeps me going back to read? Seeing the small victories as a child masters a word, a sentence, a paragraph or a whole book, the excitement in their faces when they realize it’s book giveaway day, even children who are not in the program raising their hands to be picked to replace an absent SMART student.

I have a special memory of a specific young girl; distracted and difficult to engage in the reading. There were personal care and hygiene issues as well. Several years later, I met her again… reading to the younger children in the SMART program. She proudly told me she was now in the leadership program at Tumalo Elementary. I observed how she had matured into a confident, well groomed and involved young girl. I believe that SMART had some effect or impact on her and her decision to become more involved.

For such a small commitment of time, I gave one hour a week, the benefit to these children is enormous. I encourage your readers to volunteer with SMART.

Story from:

Mary Brooks-Conley, Washington County

I have been volunteering at SMART since 1997. All of my experience except for the first year has been at the same school. What a delight that has been!

The first year, the program was so young. We were scrambling for space. The first time I read, we all met at the end of a hallway. Each year was a little different. There were a lot of times where we would have to sit on chairs along the wall. Then we would move to the library or in offices. Sometimes when we didn’t have space, we would go outside and sit on the benches. Of course we had to be super careful about safety, and be sure to not read too far away from the school. When we read outside, if it was nice out, the children would have such a difficult time focusing!

The last few years, we have actually had some decent space to read. There has always been the threat of SMART not having enough funding, and I would wonder if the organization will be around the following year. It has always been saved. It is so wonderful.

The first year I read, one of my children obviously had some attention difficulties. He was so cute. He didn’t want to sit and I could never seem to capture him. I tried to get him to sit on the floor, in a chair, in the hallway, in an office, and in a cafeteria, but he kept running off! He eventually snuck out a door and went to the playground. I would say to him “Hey – don’t you want to read?!” Sometimes, I spent the whole time trying to get him to sit with me, rather than actually reading to him!

The kids themselves, especially the kindergarteners, are so shy at the beginning of the year. But by the end of the year, they are your best buds. As they become more comfortable toward the end of the year, I would go to meet them and their faces lit up! They’d shout “It’s time for SMART!” It’s so sweet. It is wonderful to watch the children develop and become more familiar and excited about the program.