Most of us look forward to our Sunday afternoons to recuperate from the week while taking our Sunday naps, but not the “Reading Lady”! Alison Craig finds herself at the Observation and Assessment (O&A) Unit of Utah’s Juvenile Justice Services in Springville, Utah with her “kids,” encouraging them to read and write.
About five years ago, Alison, along with her daughter, volunteered to do a book drive that would start a library at the O&A Unit. Alison and her daughter had a very successful book drive, collecting over 900 books. When Alison brought in the books, she was so excited by the teens’ reactions to the books that she wanted to continue volunteering. For the past three years, Alison has been a weekly volunteer at O&A. The staff at the O&A center states, “Alison is one of the few volunteers that comes regularly each week with a smile, and when she can’t make it, she actually gets a substitute.”
Alison shows up every Sunday to spend several hours with the youth she calls her friends. She spends 10-12 hours on a monthly basis in the center, and she spends time each week finding books to use for the Sunday activity and for the kids to read during the week. Her weekly visits include a fun activity that involves reading and writing, and she writes a personal note to each of the youth every week and encourages them to write back to her. One Sunday will be Dr. Seuss Day, with each of the teens choosing a Dr. Seuss book for the group to read aloud together. Another day the kids will learn about Braille, the writing system for the blind. After reading aloud a picture-book biography of Louis Braille, the youth will try writing in Braille. Still another day will be poetry day where the kids choose a poem to read aloud, and each teen will be encouraged to write a poem.
Alison’s background is in reading and writing. She has always been a voracious reader, and she has taught writing for 20 years at Brigham Young University (BYU); for the last six years, she has taught legal writing at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. In her spare time, she loves to spend time with her family, she enjoys traveling, and she has recently earned her first-degree black belt in taekwondo, Korean karate.
In November of 2003, Alison began Heifer International’s Read to Feed program with the youth in O&A. Heifer works to alleviate world hunger by providing animals and training for families in need to end the cycle of food shortage and build self-reliance. The Read to Feed program encourages children to raise money through sponsored reading to purchase the animals. Alison’s extended family and other community members donated $1,000 to sponsor the teens in the Read to Feed program.
When Alison introduced the Read to Feed to the teens, they were excited to learn that they could do something that could save the lives of people in other parts of the world. The youth chose to pool their efforts and set a goal of purchasing four milk-producing animals to help families in need. Alison set up the program so that each of the youth could participate to the same degree. All teens can earn $10 during the week by reading for 100 minutes, about 20 minutes a day for 5 days. Those who read more are praised but don’t earn more money.
Alison and her family have sponsored the kids in the Read to Feed project again this year with exciting results. Even the teens who are reluctant readers join in because they want to help families in need. When a new girl came into O&A some weeks after the Read to Feed program had started, the girl reported that she hadn’t read during the week, apparently not having understood the program. One of the boys chided her, “You won’t even read to help a poor family in the world be able to get an animal?” After Alison explained the program to her again, she began reading every week.
Recently Alison applied for grant money to continue the Read to Feed project. She would like to be able to have the kids do the Read to Feed program all year round. Not only does it motivate the teens to read, it helps their self-esteem so much—they learn that they can do something good in the world.
Several times a year, Alison and the youth clean out the library, sorting the books, labeling any new books (as part of a simple cataloging system), fixing books, and getting rid of ruined books. She continues to donate books to the center and encourages others to donate as well. She tries to find out each teen’s hobbies and interests to direct them to books they will enjoy.
One of Alison’s nephews has created a website where the teens’ poetry, drawings, and short stories are published: www.hoodles.com/writestuff. The kids are motivated to write by the opportunity to publish online and are also motivated by the idea that what they have to say is valued and of interest to others.
Alison loves her Sunday afternoons and enjoys getting the kids reading and writing. She cherishes a note from a boy who was leaving the center after his 60-day stay. He told her that before he came to O&A, he hadn’t read two books in his “whole life.” He left O&A having read seven books and comments, “now I don’t hate reading I really like it and its interesting thanks a lot.” What better thanks could she receive? Her thanks is knowing that by teaching a child to read, she is helping change the world.