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Wednesday April 8, 2015 12:39 PM
Senior citizens, church members and even home-schooled students are volunteering their time to help Wilder Elementary School children improve their reading skills.
Through the Pioneer Pals program, members of the Westerville Senior Center come to the school on their own, at various times, and help read one-on-one with first-graders.
Senior Center member Lloyd Kuschner said he helped launch the program when he read about how many children are struggling with reading.
"I thought about how the seniors are an untapped treasure and would be able to help these students," he said.
In the summer of 2014, Kuschner met with Wilder Principal Victoria Hazlett, and the program supervisor at the Westerville Senior Center, to discuss initiating the program that fall.
"When we asked for volunteers, we expected maybe 10 to show up. But 30 people came to the first meeting," he said.
One of the volunteers, Mary Sue Blevins, said she has been working with the same student since the beginning of the school year and is starting to see progress.
"I always come on Wednesdays and work with William. He has some struggles but I can tell he's doing better. It's been a slow process but I've really enjoyed it," she said.
The Pioneer Pals hopes to branch out their volunteering to other schools in the future.
Kim Wickham, an instructional coach at Wilder, said sometimes in the classroom, struggling readers can hide in the back of the room or they might not be reading at home.
But, with tutoring like this, they can get the help they need, meet an adult role model and have fun while learning, she said.
First-grade teacher Kate Stenger said she loves the program because she knows her students are spending time reading one-on-one.
"With over 25 students in my classroom, I can only read with them in groups," she said. "With the volunteers, it's been so beneficial to all of our kids. It provides extra support for them and helps them go farther in their reading."
In addition, a group of members of the Grace Polaris Church volunteer during their lunch breaks to read with students.
Church member Allison Jenkins said she comes to Wilder on her lunch break and meets with second-grader Christopher Litteral. They sit in the library as he stacks Fritos onto his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Jenkins reads a chapter book aloud to him, asking him questions along the way.
"Now, do you remember why this character is called 'Cam'?" she asks.
"Because he likes cameras!" Christopher answers.
Jenkins said she really enjoys getting to know the students and watching their reading improve.
"We always assume someone else is going to volunteer and we think we are too busy," she said. "But, I made a commitment to help Christopher and so now I arrange my work schedule so I can honor that commitment."
The volunteers' sacrifices do not go unnoticed by school staff.
"The generosity of their time and talent is so amazing and inspirational. They are such lovely people to give themselves to us like that," Wickham said.
The Rev. Dustin Speaks, pastor at Grace Polaris, tutors second-grader Brianna Slone. He recently helped her read the American Girl book she received for Christmas.
The girl reminds Speaks that, "I'm really good at reading. In first grade, I was bad at reading. But now I just finished reading the bonus words for second grade."
Together, they read slowly down the page of her book, pausing to point out mispronunciations.
Speaks also helps a fourth-grade student who recently moved to America. He helps him with reading and they also do activities such as counting plastic coins to help him learn American currency.
Even home-schooled students, such as freshman Danny Coffy, help Wilder students with their reading.
"I started volunteering last semester and it's a lot of fun," Coffy said. "Now, the student I'm working with is reading fluently and has almost read every book in his grade level."
Wickham said no matter who the volunteer is, the goal is to build a relationship and read together. "We want students to learn to enjoy reading and also be able to read a book at their level one-on-one with their volunteer there to support them."