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:

Keith Ellis, Washington County

Keith started volunteering for SMART because he wanted to do something to help the community, particularly in a way that helps children succeed. As his wife is a retired teacher, volunteering as a reading mentor seemed like a natural fit. He has been a SMART reader at Echo Shaw elementary school since 1999.

For Keith, a big part of the fun of SMART is seeing the “light go on” when children see improvement in themselves. He enjoys helping withdrawn students come out of their shells. Keith noted that many children are in need of a dependable adult in their lives. He believes that he has made an impact as a mentor when he sees his SMART students begin to relax and trust him.

Story from:

Janet Bullat, Wallowa County

Janet was introduced to SMART when the program started at the elementary school across the street from her daughter’s middle school in 1993. Her daughter’s teacher, Mrs. Colvin, had encouraged her students to take part in this new volunteering opportunity, so Janet decided to join her daughter. Every week, the two of them would read for one hour with students who needed extra literacy support. The next year, Janet’s daughter was unable to volunteer due to scheduling restraints with school, but Janet continued with the program.

As a retired teacher of 2nd and 3rdgrade, Janet notes that SMART offers that extra boost that children need to improve their reading skills.  She has observed that many children come from one-parent families that don’t have the time to sit down and read a story with them at the end of a day.

Janet shared a story about a 2nd grade SMART student named Chance, who one day enthusiastically proclaimed, “I can read that!!” when he realized he could understand the sign that noted it was “Take Home Book Day” at SMART.  “When children have a familiarity with books and stories,” Janet said, “They are more excited about learning to read.”

Story from:

Elizabeth Rea, Linn County

My experience with SMART began in 1992, the first year we had the opportunity in Albany.  I had to stop in 2010, due to health reasons, or I’d still be there.

One highlight for me was having Zack for a partner.  When he entered the room, he would pause; break out in a huge grin, then rush to greet me. Not unlike many other SMART kids, but there was something especially eager and open about him. During his second year, tho’ not a reader with me, he still gave me that big smile and a hug. Our paths cross occasionally, and it’s still the same. That’s my reward.

Story from:

Don Rea, Linn County

I admit it.  I like SMART reading because I like kids.  I’ve been doing it since 1993.  And, it’s a cause worthy of my time and energy.  Many memories.  One that stands out is of a young lad in grade 2 that was having trouble with his reading.  He didn’t like to read and at SMART he would be looking out the window and itching for the next period – recess.   After a few months, he changed. One day he asked to stay and read instead of going to recess.

Story from:

Marolyn Brenneman, Linn County

Among my favorite memories from reading in the SMART program during the past decade:  the ability to read is such a gift and the opportunity to encourage children along the way is a golden one; the relationships, though short-term, developed with the students and their obvious pleasure when they see their reader is a delight; after reading with her for several weeks, the little girl who confided her dream of becoming a SMART reader; the opportunity to pick up a need for speech therapy followed by the reward of seeing the progress; the assessment of one of the children that “Marolyn is a good reader.”  Why wouldn’t anyone go back for more?!

Story from:

Theresa Hogue, Linn County

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.

Story from:

Donna Kreusser, Benton County

Three years ago, I was assigned to read with a little kindergarten girl. Upon meeting her, she explained, ” I don’t like this sort of thing,  being with people I don’t know.” I told her it makes me kind of nervous, too, so let’s just take it one step at a time and see how it goes… And indeed, we read together for three years.

Then, one time, in the middle of our last semester together, I had to unexpectedly miss a class with her. Upon  returning the next week, she sat me down and scolded me, ” You know, I was real disappointed you weren’t here last week. You need to tell me when you aren’t going to be here.” That was quite a turnabout and it did make me laugh; I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.

Story from:

Joseph Calbreath, Lane County

I had a hard time learning to read, and I’m still a slow reader.  I first found out about SMART at their booth at the Eugene Celebration.  It hit home real quickly when I found out what SMART was trying to do.  I wish I could have had something like this when I was young.  Right away, I saw myself in some of the young children I was reading with, especially the young boys with ADD and ADHD.  I would have been labeled an ADD child if they would have known about it in my day.  My oldest son also has it and he struggled when he was young.  I thoroughly enjoy reading with these children and plan on continuing doing so for many years to come.

Story from:

Jim and Jean Lawrence, Lane County

I began volunteering with SMART when it first started in Cottage Grove, sometime in the late 1990’s. My wife, Jean, started just a few years after I did – we’ve been doing it together ever since.  Cottage Grove is a small community, so we’ve been able to see the kids we read with grow over the years. One of the first students I read with is now a senior in high school! It’s really something to see a young person’s sense of self-worth improve when they become confident readers. Knowing that the time we share with the kids makes a real difference, and the feeling of community we experience through being volunteers is what keeps us coming back each year!

Story from:

Gwynn Sullivan, Jackson County

I have been a SMART reader for 15 years and trying to choose a favorite story is difficult. Each child has brought joy into my life and many memorable moments. I’m so fortunate to have been able to share a love of books and reading with children. It’s so exciting to share a book and to watch the progress of a child in his or her reading ability. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to enrich a child’s life as well as my own.

One of my most memorable SMART experiences came a few years ago when I read to a little boy with an enormous imagination. When I first met him his teacher said “good luck.” My unspoken response was “Good luck…? Okay, what do we have here?”

This little boy loved books and being read to. When reading a book about firemen, he had been a fireman. The same with a policeman, farmer and a zoo- keeper. He would explain in detail what his duties were and how he performed them.

One very creative day we read a book about dinosaurs. He told me that he had seen dinosaurs. When I asked him when he had seen them he told me that he had seen them when he went to the jungle in the summer. He said that he’d even had a ride on one. I was suitably impressed and told him that he must be very brave and strong to have done this. He told me that I mustn’t worry because dinosaurs don’t bite and they are potty trained.

One of my most delightful SMART experiences came while reading to a little boy who was in kindergarten and was an identical twin. He was very bright and loved books, being read to and watching educational television. His favorite books were about nature and especially dinosaurs. As any SMART reader knows, dinosaur names can be a challenge.

This particular day we had a book with many dinosaur names and I was struggling. He was patient for a while but stopped my efforts and said “Look, this is what we’re going to do. I’ll tell you the names and you just read me the story.”