By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
When Bank of America employee Michele Skinner first heard about United Way of Northeast Florida’s ReadingPals program four years ago, she was learning about the difference early intervention makes in the lives of at-risk children. Signing up to become a ReadingPal seemed like an opportunity to address the problem head on. Four years later, Michele still loves her role as a United Way volunteer ReadingPal.
Where do you volunteer? I spend about an hour a week at the Old St. Augustine Road Tutor Time working with two groups of children.
How did you get started? Four years ago, a representative came to speak to my women’s group at Bank of America. At the time, I was working on my criminal justice degree and taking a course in juvenile delinquency, learning about the correlation between early success in school and success later in life. ReadingPals seemed like a perfect opportunity. I’m an analyst and prefer to look at the root cause of an issue. It was a chance to give children a good start.
What keeps you going? When the children come and present you with their drawings and say, “I made this for you, Ms. Michele.” It just feels so good.
What are some of the challenges? They’re four-year-olds, and sometimes it’s hard to keep them engaged. They feed off each other’s energy. I have them take a break and do something different. We might sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” or I might put down the book and play “Red Light, Green Light” – who can get to a colored object in the room first? We have fun!
What’s your favorite children’s book? Mouse Paint – I love the colors and how it works with teaching blending colors. It’s easy to take it and make the story into something new. I love that whole series – Mouse Shapes and Mouse Mess – because you can do so much with them. The illustrations allow you to take something in the story and apply it to something real in their lives, making a connection.
What role does reading play in your life? My husband and I are avid readers; it’s what we do to relax, but books were a very important part of my childhood. I’m originally from Orange Park, the oldest of five. My dad was in sales and would travel the state. He would take us along, having us stay in a campsite while he was working. I always had a book along with me for the drive. Sitting around at night with a book by the campfire was everything to me.
Why is reading – and sharing it with others – so special to you? You can travel places you can’t always get to, try something new or keep yourself grounded. We spent summers in Miami with my grandmother and snuggling next to her while she read to us was one of the best memories I’ve had.
How did you start volunteering? Since I’m the oldest, I was always taking care of my brothers and sisters. Somewhere in my early teens, I started helping in the church nursery. I was always trying to help somewhere. My mom used to take us to do things like help in a soup kitchen, and I’ve tried to do the same with my own children, helping with coastal cleanups or other opportunities to give back.
I’m part of LEAD for Women, an internal group at Bank of America that meets to help women in their professional careers. We take on health issues, financial literacy and other obstacles for women. I like to be involved, especially where I can make an impact and show how my own life has progressed. I’m also fortunate to work for a company that encourages community involvement and supports employees with paid time off to volunteer.
What would you tell someone who was thinking about volunteering with ReadingPals? Reading to children makes such a difference. You can see it in their progression, as they take that next step to understanding different concepts. ReadingPals is well organized. All you really have to do is be willing to have fun and be silly!
If you would like to learn more about becoming a ReadingPals – or sign up to become one – visit unitedwaynefl.org/readingpals.