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Giving back: Passion for children and reading motivates ReadingPal volunteer

June 16, 2016

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

Penny Wright is drawn to children.

“Every time I see a little one, I have to make eye contact,” she said.

Penny Wright’s passion for children and reading led her to volunteer with United Way of Northeast Florida’s ReadingPals initiative.
Penny Wright’s passion for children and reading led her to volunteer with United Way of Northeast Florida’s ReadingPals initiative.

They have such a special place in her heart that when a phone call came 10 years ago asking if she would take in her grandniece and grandnephew, she said “Yes.” The children, then 6 months and 2 years old, became her children.

Like all new parents, she said didn’t know what lay in store for the future. She didn’t know about the advocacy role she would have to play for her son, who struggles with reading, or the anxiety of helping her daughter get ready for summer camp. She also didn’t know how much joy there would be in watching them grow.

Wright is determined to help not only her son, but other children, too, become successful readers. For two years, she has volunteered for United Way of Northeast Florida’s ReadingPals initiative, helping preschoolers develop literacy skills. She has worked with students at both West Riverside Elementary and Punkin Place Child Development of Jax.

“There’s three boys, 4-year-olds, and they can be rambunctious,” Wright said laughing.

Wright uses extra ReadingPals materials to keep the children engaged and having fun, often staying much longer than required.

“One little boy has come so far,” Wright said. “He loves books.”

To challenge her ReadingPals further, she brings along a deck of cards and has them match the cards in a variety of ways.

“I try to make it fun for them,” Wright said.  “We read Mouse Paint, and I brought in finger paint, and they got to actually mix the colors.”

She said she loves how United Way’s ReadingPals program also aims to encourage parents read to their children. She hopes more resources can help get books into the hands of non-English speaking parents so they can continue to work with their children at home.

Growing up outside of St. Louis, Wright remembered the first grade teacher who fought to get her extra advanced reading material.

“Kids need more individual time than they can get, and they’re expected to learn so much these days,” Wright said. “Kids learn through playing; they learn to share and how to take turns. They learn skills. If you don’t have reading, it hurts everything. If I can touch one kid or get one kid to understand that you have to learn to read, it’s worth it.”

For more information about ReadingPals or to sign up, visit unitedwaynefl.org/readingpals.