OTTUMWA — Practicing reading can be overwhelming for kids, but United Way of Wapello Way doesn’t believe it has to be.
Americorps VISTA Literacy Coordinator Chanelle Castillo and United Way of Wapello County Community Engagement Director Emma Kain are looking for volunteers to help Liberty and Wilson Elementary second- and third-grade students with reading and literacy skills.
Kain said the program was started three or four years ago after United Way employees and people in the community talked about wanting a program to help with those skills.
“It is a challenge we have here,” Kain said. “Reading Buddies came out of those discussions of wanting to help raise those literacy rates but not put additional work on the school district’s plate. United Way and as a community, we felt it would be a good start in helping raise those literacy rates.”
Castillo said some volunteers have shown interest, but she is hoping more college students and retired teachers will show interest in volunteering because of how they can help students.
“Older retired teachers have the patience and nurturing compassionate component that we need,” Castillo said, “and they know reading, they worked with students all their lives and know what to look for if a child is dyslexic — they know how to work with that. College students will bring more energy, there’s so many of them.”
There have been difficulties in recruiting, but both have managed to get the word out through social media and newsletters.
“Chanelle has done a really fantastic job of getting the word out about the program,” Kain said, “and it is a large accomplishment to get a couple people from a flyer. That slow growth — we are excited to see and I’m hoping that as we continue to get the word out about the project connecting with the community that we’ll get even more people on board.”
Recruiting volunteers doesn’t just happen through social media, newsletters, emails and word of mouth; it also involves waiting on how many Liberty and Wilson students will be involved in the program.
“Wilson sends out permission slips to the parents because it’s after school and they have to make sure the parents are OK with that,” Castillo said. “Depending on how many we get back, that’s how many students we’ll have. Liberty is different; it’s just one classroom they’re working with. It’s up to the teachers, if they think the student needs the help, they’ll let me know and I’ll find them a reading buddy.”
Kain also said relationships with classrooms help with knowing how many students need the help. “The teachers identify the students based on assessments that they do. We leave it to the teachers’ expertise for them to identify the students who need the extra assistance.”
Volunteer recruitment is the main factor of the program’s growth. Kain and Castillo said if more volunteers were on board, then the program can also expand beyond Liberty and Wilson.
“We would love to see the program grow to include even more classrooms,” Kain said. “That’s always the big-picture goal, as many volunteers as we can recruit we will have students for them to work with because it’s such a need in our community.”
Castillo wants more volunteers because of what they can do to change the lives of students involved. “It’s the bond that you make with the students,” she said. “The volunteers say it’s good for them and makes them feel good.”
Kain agreed. “What’s so great about a program like reading buddies is it has an amazing, positive impact on both the students and the volunteers,” she said. “The volunteers will be a part of that student’s growth as a reader and as a student and see them become stronger learners and know they helped be part of that.”
Both said people should not feel discouraged from volunteering, no matter if they have experience helping kids with reading and literacy skills.
“All it takes is you being compassionate, caring, nurturing and patient,” Castillo said. “Patience is a big key; teachers do the rest — they give you the material and tell you what to work on and right there in the classroom. It doesn’t take anything but having the heart.”
“Research shows that if a student can have some positive connection or positive relationship with one adult in the school system,” Kain said, “their likelihood of succeeding and graduating on time is significantly increased. Every part of the program is intentional of helping our students succeed and give our volunteers a positive experience.”
Volunteers will meet once or twice each week at either Wilson Elementary from 3:30-4 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday or at Liberty Elementary from 1-1:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. United Way provides the training and pays for the background check. To volunteer or learn more, contact Castillo at email@example.com or call 641-682-1264.