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Volunteers are the lifeblood of literacy

Volunteer Dale Hagin helps Inez Community School coordinator Rachelle Ford with boxes of books as they leave the Read to Me book warehouse on May 21. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

It takes an army of volunteers – and scores of fresh troops every year – to keep New Mexico’s myriad literacy programs, for both children and adults, operating and doing so smoothly.

The lifeblood of these programs, the volunteers, can have specialized training in how to serve as mentors – or they can be trained by the various programs in need of volunteers. Many are retired teachers and professionals. Some work with kids who have learning disabilities. Others assist those learning English as a second language, including adults seeking employment and those looking to become U.S. citizens.

An Albuquerque Reads tutor works with a kindergarten student in 2019. Teachers say they see marked improvement in students working with the program. (Courtesy of Albuquerque Reads)

Regardless, these volunteers to a man, woman and teenager are motivated by a genuine desire to help those who struggle with the written word.

Serving these readers in need is “one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done” is a fitting, central sentiment from one individual in this story that applies to most volunteers.

Reading experts say the single most important thing that can be done to raise a child’s literacy level is to read to that child, and encourage a love of reading through exposure to books. Children, they say, must learn to read by third grade so that they can then read to learn by fourth grade. Further, the inability of a child to read at grade level by the end of fourth grade is a predictor of a child who will not graduate from high school on time or will drop out.

From left, volunteers Stephanie Grammer and Patty Heiman go through bins of books to pack them up according to grade level at the Read to Me book warehouse. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Finding opportunities

The Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring Program in Albuquerque has a team of about 400 volunteers to call upon, said program director Vicki DeVigne. Tutors go into the schools and work with kids primarily in first through third grades, and include children who have been identified by their teachers as not reading at grade level. Each year, tutors sit with about 600 students at 65 schools in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Belen and Bernalillo.

As an organization, Albuquerque Oasis is best known for the classes it offers typically for retired people on topics such as art, politics, culture and cooking. Fees from those help pay for the tutoring program, which is free to schools and students.

“I’m supported by the staff here at Oasis, but really what it comes down to for the tutoring program is volunteers,” said DeVigne. “Tutors go into the schools, normally during the school day, and they work one-on-one with the same students for one hour, one day a week for the entire school year.

“The idea is that the volunteer and the student form a bond, and together select books and reading material that will keep the student interested in reading. A lot of times, students don’t read because they don’t realize there’s things out there that are interesting and exciting for them.”

Pat Dee, with Albuquerque Reads, in front of Bel Air Elementary School. (Courtesy of Pat Dee)

A most ‘meaningful’ thing

Retired occupational therapist Valerie Dalton has been volunteering at Oasis for more than four years. “I don’t have children and grandchildren, so this is how I get my young person fix,” she said.

“When I worked in middle schools in Albuquerque, I worked with a number of children who got in trouble and had behavioral issues. What I found was they would rather get into trouble and look ‘bad’ to their friends than look dumb to their friends because they couldn’t read well or do what was being tasked. I’d like to help as many children as I can from feeling like that.”

Vicki DeVigne

Although Oasis tutors don’t formally assess a child’s reading progress, Dalton said she can tell that by the end of the school year the kids she works with read better and comprehend more of what they’re reading.

Reading test scores of students are confidential and Albuquerque Public Schools does not release those to Oasis. However, a voluntary teacher-principal survey submitted to the schools by Oasis indicates that “85% of students mentored by Oasis are reading at grade level by the end of the school year,” said DeVigne.

‘Reading to us’

Reading with students has been “one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done as a volunteer,” said Bruce Mulligan, a volunteer with For The Love of Reading, a literacy program sponsored by the Taos Milagro Rotary Club.

Mulligan spends two half-hours each week reading to two kids at elementary schools in the Taos area. The program, which has about two dozen volunteers, including Mulligan’s wife, also targets first through third graders.

“We usually set up in the school library and bring an array of books that are appropriate for the age level,” Mulligan said. “The teachers identify kids who need the extra attention and we sit down with those kids and start by reading to them.” As students improve their reading skills, “they start reading to us.”

The kids also regularly get to select books to keep and take home to create their own home library, Mulligan said.

“I’ve seen kids who just really hated to read, kids who struggled through it, just suddenly blossomed in a year and started to read books that were up a grade level from what they were reading before,” he said.

Serving those in need

Albuquerque Reads – a project of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce – is another literacy program with a goal of providing tutors for young students. Its volunteers work with kindergarten and first grade students at three APS Title I schools.

Pat Dee was on the original steering committee that helped set up the program 18 years ago, and for most of that time he has been among the pool of 300 tutors working with the program.

“I do it because I love the reaction from the kids,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most rewarding pieces of volunteer work that I’ve ever done, and you can see the progress that these kids make.”

Working in tandem with classroom teachers, the volunteer tutors, trained by certified teachers, provide two half-hours of one-on-one reading and literacy instruction each week to two children, who remain with them throughout the school year. The program serves an average of 250 children a year.

Volunteers also include former teachers, retired and active duty members of the military, college students and working professionals.

Seeing ‘noticeable’ progress

And the progress the kids make in their reading is readily noticeable, Dee said. “It’s really tremendous for a lot of them, you know, reinforcing what they’re learning in the classroom.”

Albuquerque Reads tutors follow a scripted curriculum. There is normally at least one test children get at the beginning of the school year “just to get a feel for where they are” in terms of their literacy level, and at least one test later in the year “so that progress can be measured,” Dee said.

And it’s not just the kindergarten teachers who notice the improvement, Dee said. “Some of our biggest fans have been first grade teachers, who all of a sudden saw these kids coming into first grade, much better equipped to read and ready to accomplish first grade work.”

According to APS evaluations and national assessments, at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, an average of only 24% of the kindergartners and first graders at these schools were reading at grade level, while 45% of students were considered “seriously below grade level,” meaning 1.5 to 3 years behind. By early March, as schools were forced to close because of the pandemic, the average of the students reading at or close to grade level had jumped to 42%.

Cultural appreciation

A volunteer with the ReadWest adult literacy program for more than 30 years, Dee Bovenzi has worked mostly with adult learners of English as a second language, tutoring both speakers of Spanish and Vietnamese.

She is among the 175 or so tutors available to the Rio Rancho-based nonprofit organization. Tutors work with the students on a primarily one-on-one basis, although there are some group classes as well, said Bovenzi.

“First I teach them the vowels and then the long and short sounds associated with the different vowels and letters,” she said. As students’ ability to sound out and recognize words improves, Bovenzi puts together sentences and paragraphs using subject matter about things from their respective cultures – a key to their learning process, she said.

“I used to volunteer to teach nights at SIPI (Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute), and there were people who had never been off the reservation. I found that some of them, who never went to school, did not know how to read. But if you had a mechanic in the class, and you brought a book in about transmissions, they could read the words because they recognized them.”

Many of the adults she tutors are motivated by a desire to read about the U.S. Constitution and take a citizenship test, others want to find decent employment or further their education, Bovenzi said.

“I get such satisfaction being able to help somebody to become an American citizen, help somebody get a better job, help somebody go to school and get a degree,” she said.

“I believe in community, and so do they – and they know that to be a productive member of that community they have to be able to speak and read and write the language of that community.”


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