Seniors step in to help students improve reading skills

Posted: Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Once upon a time, there were some children who were having trouble keeping up with their classmates in reading. The teachers wanted to help more, but they had to be with all the other children, too.

Thanks to some senior volunteers, the story has a happy ending.

This will be the second year for the Foster Grandparent Program at Soldotna Elementary School. Participants of all ages call it a success and look forward to this year's program, which is organizing now.

"They help us a lot," said third-grader Amanda Dillon. "We are all better at reading because grandmas come in and spend their time helping us."

The heart of the program is senior citizens who volunteer in the school to work one-on-one with primary pupils to tutor them in reading skills. Participants of all ages enjoyed the experience and noticed definite improvements in students' reading.

Last week, the organizers received word that the program has been selected as a daily "point of light" for later this fall, said school coordinator Janet Boyce.

The award is sponsored by the Points of Light Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1990 to promote volunteer community service to help solve serious social problems. The Daily Points of Light Awards are designed to honor those who have made a commitment to connect Americans through service to help meet critical needs in their communities, especially focused on the goals for children and youth, according to the organization's Web site.

Last year the school had 14 regular volunteers, and this year it is recruiting for more.

"They are dears, all. They are really good," said principal Carolyn Cannava.

"(The program) has allowed children an opportunity to get to know and appreciate seniors. Many don't have grandparents up here."

The seniors help by reading stories, coaching phonics, listening to young readers and offering hugs and encouragement. The children get the individual attention they need to overcome challenges on the road to literacy.

First-grade teacher Kelly Vasilie said last year's grandparents helped with diverse reading skills, made her job easier and contributed to a real jump in the students' performance.

"It was really nice for the kids to have a chance to have someone work with them one on one," she said. "It was a very positive experience."

The senior volunteers get a lot out of the program.

Cannava said some say the children energize them.

Volunteer Pat Muir, whom the children call "Grandma Pat," was quick to sign up again this fall.

"I love to read, and I love kids. I'm really grateful for this program," she said. "The staff is so supportive, and the kids are so sweet. It was just delightful.

"I would certainly encourage anyone over 60 to come check it out."

The children who were in the program last year were eagerly looking forward to their helpers' return this fall. They described how the "grandmas" were friendly, helpful and nudged them from basic primers into the wonders of what they call "chapter books." The experience made books more accessible and attractive.

Students said when they got stuck on words, the seniors helped them sound them out.

Third-grader Teslin Hughes gave what may be a child's highest praise to his tutor.

"She made it funner," he said.

The project at Soldotna Elementary is one of four in Alaska funded by a federal grant, with the others at Glennallen, Sitka and Bethel. It is coordinated by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, The Learning Center at Kenai Peninsula College and Alaska's Foster Grandparent Program, a part of the National Senior Services Corps.

Foster Grandparent volunteers nationwide serve about 80,000 children, teen-agers and their families in almost 300 projects sponsored and managed by local nonprofits in all states, according to figures from The Corporation for National Service.

"In the process, they strengthen communities by providing youth services that community budgets cannot afford and by building bridges across generations," it said.

To participate in the Soldotna Elementary reading program, senior volunteers must be at least 60 years old and take part in training. They are paid a stipend and schedules are flexible.

Anyone interested is invited to training and orientation Tuesday at the Soldotna Senior Center. The three-hour session begins at noon.

For more information, call The Learning Center at 262-0327 or Janet Boyce at 262-4919.

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