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Giving back: ReadingPals volunteer loves to help children prepare for school

July 10, 2017

By Kate Jolley
Originally published in The Florida Times-Union

For many children growing up, they are riddled with the likes of Shel Silverstein, Maurice Sendak and Dr. Suess – if not simply to bolster imagination then for the early exposure to vocabulary and syntax.

Photo provided by Emily Williamson
Photo provided by Emily Williamson

To this end, ReadingPals exists to connect preschoolers who have not yet been introduced to this kind of literary experience with passionate volunteers through United Way of Northeast Florida. For 30 minutes each week, volunteers and young students meet to read, complete activities and develop the skills necessary for success in elementary school and beyond.

When Emily Williamson worked for United Way managing the organization’s affinity groups, she often shared information on ReadingPals. The more she talked about it, the more she realized it would be a good fit for her. Four years and a career move later, Williamson is now the director of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Jacksonville and still regularly volunteers with United Way’s ReadingPals.

“When you’re at ReadingPals, you’re at ReadingPals,” she said. “Everything else is on the backburner for half an hour a week.”

Volunteers have the freedom to share curriculum through crafts, activities or flashcards based on the books assigned by the program. Williamson often encourages friendly competition with flashcard races to engage her students. For example, whoever hears a certain word first raises that flashcard – the kids love it.

“United Way gives us tons of resources because they know every kid is different,” said Williamson. “It’s not a cookie-cutter program.”

She often starts with “From Head to Toe” by Eric Carle to gauge her young students’ skill levels. The book introduces basic body parts and activities to keep children engaged.

Williamson enjoys watching her kids grow, whether they are learning to write letters or simply becoming more engaged in the activities as the year progresses.

Over the course of a school year, volunteers work alongside teachers to build their preschoolers’ comprehension skills and are usually able to see clear improvement.

“You get to be the fun one,” said Williamson. “They are great kids that just need more exposure to words.”

It’s that exposure ReadingPals offers as a supplement to regular preschool curriculum.

Building a strong reading skills at a young age improves on-time grade promotion and ultimately increases graduation rates, according to United Way. For just 30 minutes a week, ReadingPals volunteers are on the forefront of this critical journey, even if keeping kids entertained and absorbed for half an hour can, at times, be challenging.

As Williamson suggests, when in doubt, reach for the stickers: “Stickers go a long way. Kids will do a lot for stickers.”

ReadingPals recruitment through United Way of Northeast Florida is underway. If you would like to volunteer as a ReadingPal, visit unitedwaynefl.org/readingpals.