By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
Cathy Barnwell loved reading and loved working with children so when a call for ReadingPal volunteers went out at her church, she knew it was the perfect opportunity for her. That was four years ago, before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
After going through treatment for several months, Cathy returned to her volunteering, but this time she had a partner.
“While I was going through chemo, going to see the kids fed my heart,” Cathy said. “I powered through it, and the kids didn’t know I had a wig on.”
Her husband, George, joined her. Now together, they read to eight children once a week at the Total Learning Center on Barnes Road. It’s a ReadingPals partnership that reflects the longtime commitment they’ve shared for decades.
That partnership started on a Halloween night at a party in 1975. Two years later, Cathy was moving to George’s hometown of Jacksonville.
“It’s been a goal to stay north of Baymeadows,” George said, laughing. “I grew up on DuPont Road and graduated from Wolfson High.”
Over the years, volunteering has become a major part of the Barnwells’ lives.
“I think it’s just part of my DNA,” Cathy said. “I worked for JEA and was always taking care of people. I’ve always wanted to help people succeed.”
For George, there was a more precise moment when he knew he could give back.
“Right after we married, my dad died,” George said. “I saw this Big Brother commercial, and I understood that I’d had a wonderful dad for 22 years, but others were not so lucky.”
George’s volunteer experience has taken him full circle, from helping young men who’ve been incarcerated to what he considers addressing the root of the problem – helping preschoolers achieve academic success.
There are precious moments when their preschoolers find success.
“Last year, we had this one child who tried so hard to say the sound of the letter ‘b’ but would always choose ‘c,’ ” Cathy said. “Eventually, he got it.”
The Barnwells’ efforts through United Way’s ReadingPals initiative at Total Learning Center have brought the couple new experiences, from learning about the variety of languages spoken in the community to the challenges busy working families face every day.
“It’s when [the preschoolers] get it that it means so much,” Cathy said. “They pick up so much more than you think.”