A Staten Island School Reading Volunteer serves the children of Staten Island so they can open the mind of a child, give a child encouragement, affirmation, and self-confidence, help a child overcome disadvantages, and light a child’s way to a literate and productive future. During the past 41 years, the dedicated members of this extraordinary volunteer corps have helped thousands of youngsters improve their reading skills, abate their anxiety about reading, and discover both the substance and the joy of reading.
The 41-year-old volunteer program is operated by the Staten Island Mental Health Society (SIMHS), through an arrangement with District 31 of the New York City Board of Education. Unique on Staten Island, it was launched in 1960 by philanthropist Elizabeth w. Pouch, an SIMHS founder and benefactor. In the ensuing years, the program has grown from a handful of tutors to more than 200 volunteers assisting hundreds of children in 35 public elementary schools. The program receives no government funding, and the volunteers are neither paid nor reimbursed for any of their expenses.
School Reading Volunteers must be high school graduates in good health, and must possess patience and concern for the welfare of children. All volunteers receive four hours of training from a Board of Education reading specialist, who instructs them in innovative tutoring techniques using age-appropriate books, learning games, puzzles, story-telling, and poetry, to motivate and engage the children. After training, volunteers are assigned to the schools of their choice. The children who need tutoring, selected by teachers and principals, are excused from class twice a week for 45-minute reading sessions in another room.
Reading volunteers face the challenges of tutoring children who may have emotional or behavioral problems, short attention spans, dysfunctional home lives, or limited English proficiency (an increasing problem on Staten Island, where the immigrant population is growing). The reading instruction is just as vital as the connection that volunteers build with their students. The tutors have been encouraged to develop close, kind, respectful relationships with the children, many of whom do not have other concerned adults in whom to confide.
Reading volunteers consistently work above and beyond what is required, putting in more hours than their weekly commitment, spending their own money on books and supplies to enhance learning, traveling to schools via public transportation, and braving winter weather so they do not miss a lesson with the children who depend on them.
The program’s major impacts are the positive outcomes for the children. Youngsters whose futures were once devoid of promise have not only advanced academically, but they have received the mental health advantages of bolstered self-esteem. Teachers and parents report that as the child progresses in reading, his/her confidence grows, leading to a longer attention span, a more positive attitude, and improved behavior in class, at home, and in the community.