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When reading is more than just books

| Alison Wagener

When best friends and fellow Blugolds Jeannie LaFavor and Shannon Harris arrive at their reading partners’ home, they are greeted by eyes peering through blinds and little hands proudly presenting stacks of books.

LaFavor and Harris are volunteers with the Title I Reading Partnership Program, an initiative that pairs college students with students in the Eau Claire Area School District. Once a week, the volunteers meet with their reading partners in the children’s homes or a school setting.

LaFavor and Harris learned about the Reading Partnership Program last spring when they visited UW-Eau Claire's Community Action Fair in search of a service-learning opportunity. When they found program coordinator Jane Rockwell promoting the program, they felt an instant connection and signed up to volunteer. One week later, Rockwell matched them up with two young siblings, Lucy and Tyler, both of whom are students at Locust Lane Elementary. Three semesters later, LaFavor and Harris can’t imagine their lives without Lucy and Tyler.

Rockwell said that the goal of the program is to provide students with “joyful experiences with reading” and make them more comfortable with their abilities, but LaFavor's and Harris' connections with their reading partners extend far beyond books.

“It’s been really cool to see their family progress, to be able to experience more and more of their family life, and to almost start to feel like part of their family,” LaFavor said.

“And we’re always so excited to go,” Harris added. “It doesn’t even feel like work.”

LaFavor is an elementary education major with a science teaching minor, and Harris is a comprehensive elementary and special education major with an emphasis in learning disabilities. Asking the future teachers about their experiences with Lucy and Tyler, who are in first and second grade, respectively, brings a variety of stories to the surface. From playing games and learning how to count in Hmong to receiving candy special to their culture and sharing a home cooked meal with the family, the volunteers have learned a lot about life — and they have enjoyed a whole lot of laughter.

“From the minute I met them, I was just amazed at how enthused they were,” Rockwell said of the Blugold friends. “I think they were a little bit apprehensive the first time because they hadn’t had connections with a family of a different culture like that, a different ethnicity. Going into a home can be kind of nerve-wracking too, for that first session. And then after that, they were just on fire. I mean, they were so excited and so enthused. And the children were so excited. They’ve really become part of that family.”

The Reading Partnership Program was started about 25 years ago as an initiative to bring English into the homes of Hmong families in the Chippewa Valley. Today, the program works with students who attend Title I schools in Eau Claire. Title I is a federal grant program designed to assist schools serving disadvantaged children. In Wisconsin, schools with at least 40 percent of students who qualify for free- or reduced-price school lunches qualify for Title I assistance.

Rockwell said her overall goal is for the program to help make Eau Claire a more literate community, but for now, she’s just happy to see enrollment increasing.

“If kids are off target by fourth grade, it’s pretty well proven they’re going to stay off target,” Rockwell said. “So if we can get them reading just about at grade level by the time they’re hitting fourth grade, their chances to do well later really increase.”

LaFavor and Harris meet with the siblings for an hour every week. LaFavor works with Lucy, and Harris with Tyler. When they first started, the volunteers would each read seven or eight books to their partners. Now, Tyler and Lucy frequently read aloud to each other and to the group.

“The children are improving so well,” Rockwell said. “I’m sure it’s a combination of the teachers they have at their school and their experiences there, but Shannon and Jeannie are this other piece of the puzzle.”

Harris said working with the Reading Partnership Program has strengthened her commitment to her future career.

“I’ve always had a passion for teaching, but they definitely keep that flame alive,” Harris said. “When you volunteer, you just see the difference that you’re making and how they’re changing you. It’s so exciting. I don’t even know how to explain it. You just have to experience it.”

Rockwell said that most students stay with the program for one semester to get 15 of their required service-learning hours. As of now, LaFavor and Harris have accumulated 47 hours each. Both plan to have 70 by the end of the semester.

“They are such a perfect example of what you hope can happen with this program because they’re having a multicultural experience, they’re learning about this family, another culture, their rituals and holidays, all those things,” Rockwell said. “And I think it’s given them such good insight into children and how they’re going to be able to help them when they’re in a school setting. I think they also see that side of the home piece, and how that can affect how children learn. But they’ve just been so, so excited. And it’s really fun to see that.”

Both LaFavor and Harris said they would encourage anyone interested in the Reading Partnership Program — or any other volunteer opportunity — to sign up and donate their time to the community.

“When you’re here at college, be more than just a student at the university. Realize you’re a part of such a bigger community than that, and there’re so many people out there who would love your time and your talents. So many people out there have something to pour back into you, too,” LaFavor said. “These kids have poured so much back into us: their joy, their excitement … I think volunteering is a little piece of a place to belong. I think everyone needs that in college.”

Those interested in signing up to volunteer with the Title I Reading Partnership Program can contact Jane Rockwell at rockweja@uwec.edu or 715-836-2873 — or can stop by her office in Centennial Hall 3210.

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire students Jeannie LaFavor, left, and Shannon Harris, right, spend time with their reading partners.