Literacy program expands ecumenically
By Lindsay Peyton
Reading Buddies will soon be back in session. The community-wide volunteer effort to help elementary students build their reading skills is organized by FUMC Dayton. Now, after a two-year hiatus due to COVID, the program is relaunching at the end of March.
Rev. Guy Williams has been spreading the word around town. At a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting, the news was met with applause. “There were cheers,” the Pastor recalled.
Chamber members weren’t the only ones who were excited to hear Reading Buddies would reopen. Local police officers, staff from the City, members of civic associations and of area churches have all volunteered in the past. And they are ready to help young readers again.
Volunteer registration closed on Feb. 28 – with 50 names on the list. Matching names with children in need of a mentor was the next priority. “We’re ready to get people into the schools,” Williams said.
Reading Buddies first formed in September 2020. Williams had launched a similar program, while serving at a former appointment. With the Texas Annual Conference’s focus on reading and the We Love All God’s Children initiative, the pastor felt confident in starting something in Dayton to assist area schools.
Conversations with church members, who also serve in the school district, began building about what the congregation could do. For instance, Julie Chachere is on staff with Dayton ISD and superintendent Jessica Johnson is also a church member.
By October, reading coaches from the district’s three elementary school campuses began drafting the details. “We firmed up what we were going to do,” Williams said.
Instead of limiting the ministry to FUMC Dayton alone, the congregation wanted to open up the opportunity to others. Members of neighboring Baptist, Assembly of God and nondenominational churches signed on.
Then, the Police Chief volunteered, as did members of various civic organizations. “There were a variety of people involved,” Williams said.
Each participant signed up for a one-on-one session with a student. “It’s basically reading along with children,” Williams said. “When they hear someone reading, it helps them process. Then, they practice.”
Elementary children were selected by campus reading instructors. “They’re students who need extra time to be on track with their grade level,” Williams said.
The commitment was 30 minutes a week, for the first eight weeks of the program, starting in January 2020. The idea was to have a second round after spring break.
T-shirts were printed with “Reading Buddies” to make volunteers visible in the schools. In addition to helping children build their reading skills, WIlliams explained that participants also acted as mentors and positive role models.
“To have someone show up who is interested in you and cares about you is huge for the kids,” he said. “That confidence boost is so important.”
In March 2020, COVID-19 hit the U.S. “Then everything changed,” Williams said.
Reading Buddies went on hold. “We thought we’d see about the fall – but soon it was very clear,” Williams said.
The school district quickly pivoted to safeguarding children from the virus. Volunteer programs were postponed indefinitely.
“We knew that once the fall wasn’t going to happen, the spring wouldn’t either,” Williams said. “And we understood.”
Over the summer, variants of the virus emerged. Still, there was hope. Children were back in school, and the Reading Buddies stood at the ready.
When the District reached out to Williams to see if restarting the program was an option, he explained, “As soon as we can do it, we want to do it again.”
A consensus was reached that Reading Buddies would get rolling after spring break. “We’ve got folks from all over our community who are excited to be back,” Williams said.
Because various churches are involved – as well as those without a church home, it’s an opportunity to reach beyond the walls of FUMC Dayton. “It isn't just our ministry. We are helping our community invest in our children,” Williams said.
He mentions Jeremiah 29: “Seek the prosperity of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its prosperity will be your prosperity.”
“It’s about seeking to help the people of the community prosper,” he said. “This is something we can do to boost kids and their prospects for success in the future. We’re building scaffolding – support that is so essential for our children.”
Reading on grade level means more than just building literature and vocabulary skills, Williams explained. “Third grade is the year you move from learning to read to reading to learn,” he said. “That’s when everything changes. If you’re having trouble reading, then you’re going to have trouble with everything else.”
There are a number of churches in the Conference doing their parts to help strengthen students’ reading aptitude, Williams added. If a congregation wants to step up, starting a similar program to Reading Buddies is simple, he said. It all starts with asking the school district how to best serve.
Regardless of the size of a congregation, members can invite other churches and civic organizations to join. “It’s really an opportunity to strengthen relationships with others,” Williams said. “We’re all like-minded and want to be servants.”
He added, “Some things are difficult to do together. But this is something easy to do.”