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Giving back: Through field trips and fun, ReadingPals volunteer connects with preschoolers

June 4, 2016

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

In April, Valerie Strickland-Smith watched a group of eager 4- and 5-year-olds explore everything about the WJCT Public Broadcasting Radio and Television Station.

Valerie Strickland-Smith has volunteered as a United Way of Northeast Florida ReadingPal for two years.
Valerie Strickland-Smith has volunteered as a United Way of Northeast Florida ReadingPal for two years.

Strickland-Smith, vice president of Administration and Human Resources at WJCT, has volunteered with United Way of Northeast Florida’s ReadingPals initiative for two years. Usually she spends an hour or so with her four students at Long Branch Elementary School, but this time, the whole class came to her worksite.

It was a busy day; the children used a camera to zoom in, saw themselves on the television screen and heard their voices on the radio. After a picnic outside watching the boats on the river, there was a story and art project.

“Their eyes were so big,” Strickland-Smith said. “I probably got more joy out of that day then they did, but they were so excited. Their teacher said that when they got back to the classroom they were talking about everything — the camera, the radio, the picnic, the bugs in the grass outside. Everything is interesting, down to the minutia! Maybe the minutia was the most interesting.”

United Way’s ReadingPals initiative connects passionate, committed volunteers with preschoolers who need a little extra help getting ready for kindergarten. After reading about the ReadingPals program, it seemed like a logical fit to Strickland-Smith.

“It’s just kind of who I am,” Strickland-Smith said. “It’s nice to have someone consistent in their life.”

That stability wasn’t always there for Strickland-Smith when she was growing up. After her mother died when she was 4, family members and friends stepped in to help her father. Although she remembers their kindness and efforts, consistency wasn’t always there. Once she began reading, books became a source of comfort.

“I was kind of a nomad child,” Strickland-Smith said. “But no matter whose house you were in, you could always get lost in a book. I’ve probably always been drawn to young children because of that experience.”

A Jacksonville native, Strickland-Smith would lose herself in the stacks at the Regency Branch Library.

“I’d go to the library and get lost in a book for hours,” Strickland-Smith said.

Strickland-Smith continued her studies, graduating from Florida State University as her mother had and now her daughter. A career path in human resources eventually led her to her position at WJCT and her role now in giving back.

“The driver for me is these kids,” Strickland-Smith said. “Exposing them to a different world, a better situation, a better place — if that’s the driver, though, this is fun! When my daughter was young, I was the mom doing parties, crafts. Now I’m doing it for these kids. They will also be mine. They will always be in my heart.”

For more information on United Way’s ReadingPals program and how you can sign up to volunteer, visit unitedwaynefl.org/readingpals.

In addition, United Way’s “Summer Daze of Action” ReadingPals Book Drive is underway now through June 20 in partnership with the Jacksonville Public Library. The community is invited to donate new or gently used children’s books at any of the 21 Jacksonville Public Library branches to benefit United Way’s ReadingPals initiative. Learn more: unitedwaynefl.org/summerdaze