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Giving Back: Volunteer helps preschoolers take reading’s first step

October 3, 2016

Patty DeStephano loves giving back to the community as a ReadingPal through United Way of Northeast Florida. Credit: Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Patty DeStephano loves giving back to the community as a ReadingPal through United Way of Northeast Florida. Credit: Nancy Winckler-Zuniga

By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union

When volunteer Patty DeStephano visits her United Way of Northeast Florida’s ReadingPal preschoolers, she carries a bag full of props and toys she can pull out at a moment’s notice. A paper bag with a pipe cleaner, watercolor paint set and other items help keep her readers engaged and having fun.

We recently sat down to talk about her experiences with the program, designed to help local preschoolers get ready to read before entering kindergarten.

Where do you volunteer?

I’ve been working with children at Punkin Place Child Development of Jax for more than three years. Each year, I’ve worked with at least one pair of children, but last year, I worked with three pairs of children.

How did you get started?

There was a story in the newspaper with a phone number and I thought: “That’s for me.” I called and came to the first training, and that was it. I’m an occupational therapist with Early Steps. I know what those first steps should be, where they should be developmentally.

What do you like best about working with ReadingPals preschoolers?

Getting to know them over the course of a year, seeing how they progress developmentally. In the beginning, they can’t get through the book, can’t sit still long enough. You have to think of other ways to reach them then. One of them really wanted to be the teacher, so I got the concepts in there by letting her teach me.

What are some of the other challenges?

Their attention span; many are far behind. One year, I had a child who didn’t know colors. By the end of the year, they know their colors.

What are your favorite books and activities to share with them?

In the spring, we do “Mouse Paint” (a book that teaches about colors), and we always do Easter eggs with the book. Some of them really like boiled eggs! When we read “My Five Senses,” that’s when we do a stereognosis activity (being able to distinguish an object using only touch) — reaching into the paper bag and telling me what it is. As an occupational therapist, I really like this.

When did you start volunteering locally?

Really, it was in 1989 when I moved to Jacksonville from Michigan. I joined Junior League because I wanted to meet people and found myself leading this fundraising event, lugging huge Christmas trees around and imprinting stationery. And I also volunteered at my children’s school — I was the picture lady, bringing art to their class.

Why would you recommend someone volunteer with United Way’s ReadingPals?

If you love kids, this is a chance to make a difference. It’s about helping educate kids so they can pull themselves up. Kindergarten is now like second grade was in our day. If you come in behind, it’s tough to catch up.

If you would like to learn more about becoming a ReadingPals – or sign up to become one – visit unitedwaynefl.org/readingpals.