By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union
For Ramona Roberts, coaching her ReadingPals’ students so they can experience a love of reading is why she has volunteered through the United Way of Northeast Florida initiative for the last three years.
“Reading to me opens up a world you might never see, helps you learn things you might never learn, explore things that you might never experience in your day-to-day activities,” Roberts said. “Four-year-olds are the place to start before they get tainted by the world.”
United Way’s ReadingPals initiative matches volunteer readers with pairs of 4-year-olds enrolled in prekindergarten. Roberts, an information/technology project manager with Florida Blue, works with four children at Rutledge H. Pearson Elementary School.
Growing up in Hilliard at a time when schools were still segregated, reading was pushed by Roberts’s parents and teachers.
“My mom and dad were big proponents of education,” she said. “We didn’t have books [at home], so our teachers pushed books. We were poor, so there wasn’t a whole lot of anything.”
Her teachers – especially her first grade teacher, Miss Albert – worked with her a lot and helped her learn to read. Her fifth-grade teacher, who opened up the world of drama to her, also had a lasting impact. Roberts has transferred that love of reading and acting to her family.
“I have a large family – four children, 21 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. and every year we do a Christmas play,” Roberts said. “I give the youngest parts that they have to stretch for. Everyone under the age of 18 participates in the play. Sometimes it’s about the spirit of Christmas, of helping, of giving back to others.”
She said the children all know their gifts will be books. She believes by exposing them to a love of reading she has given her children a strong foundation to grab opportunities that come their way and value the community they are part of.
It’s something she tries to give her ReadingPals’ students when they are reading books together or playing with the puzzles she brings.
“They don’t even know what they don’t know,” Roberts said. “I want to make sure that by them learning to read for themselves, they don’t have to depend on anyone else for information. Reading opens up the idea that everything in their community is not all there is, that everything in their household is not all there is. I want to make sure that those kids have a chance, to make sure that those kids can read and get the information they need to make good choices.”
Thanks to Roberts’ help, a group of rising-Kindergartners will go forward, understanding that reading can take them places. She is looking forward to next year’s group.
“We’re all here to help each other,” Roberts said. “We’re not put on this earth to be alone.”
To sign up to be a United Way of Northeast Florida ReadingPal like Roberts, visit unitedwaynefl.org/readingpals.