By Nancy Winckler-Zuniga
Originally published in the Florida Times-Union
Tianna Sparks had to find a way to work with young children.
“I grew up alone,” Sparks said. Her childhood had been spent in the company of adults, and she longed for the company of younger lives. It seemed like the children she met — at church or other social gatherings — wanted to be with her, too.
For years, she listened to her grandmother’s observations on how she was like a magnet, drawing the little ones to her smile.
Her grandparents raised Sparks — stepping in when her very young parents weren’t able to guide her. They made sure Sparks received a good education.
“I was raised by my grandparents,” Sparks said. “They were awesome.”
So when she saw the Florida Blue email asking for volunteers to serve as United Way of Northeast Florida ReadingPals, she had to do it.
For the last two years, Sparks has been a ReadingPal volunteer. She was first paired with 4-year-olds at Rufus E. Payne Elementary School. This past year, she spent an hour a week with her two preschoolers at R.V. Daniels Elementary School.
“I love their personalities. They are so honest,” Sparks said. “They are so sweet, the way they watch out for me. They always want to know if I’m coming back.”
She loves the way they run to the door to greet her, understanding that need for adult connection. It reminds her of special times in her own childhood when she was the one running to greet the special adult in her life.
“The first time I flew on a plane it was to visit my dad in Texas; he was stationed there,” Sparks said. “I was traveling alone. I remember walking down the long terminal and seeing my dad at the other end and then running and running into his arms. I must have been about 7.”
Sparks makes the connections with her preschool group by understanding their need for engagement and finding ways to bring humor into the classes.
Adding drama to the stories helps keep the children involved while they gain literacy skills needed to achieve in school. Individualizing the lessons is part of the fun for Sparks.
“We re-enacted the book ‘Big Bear, Little Bear,'” Sparks said. “I was the big bear voice and the children thought it was hilarious.”
She said that by acting it out, the children were then able to do an activity putting story elements in order, remembering more than they might have otherwise.
Although her heart is with the children, Sparks is quick to volunteer for other United Way projects, such as handing out RealSense fliers to guide adults to financial education. She also enjoys working with seniors at events, like the Mayor’s Senior Ball.
“I always think, this could be someone’s grandparent,” Sparks said, remembering the influence her grandparents had on her.