After a fall term spent organizing, scouting and preparing, the Child Development Center on Jan. 18 started welcoming volunteers with Start Making a Reader Today for weekly visits to Western Oregon University. The seven SMART volunteers read one on one with children for an hour each Wednesday morning, providing personal attention and sharing their enthusiasm for books.
After just two weeks, the children already are looking forward to the visits, said Carey Gilbert, director of the CDC, one of the eight centers housed within The Research Institute.
“Having the volunteers come in makes reading more of an event,” she said. “It makes an impression on the room. It tells the kids this is something we are all taking the time to do because it’s important.”
CDC is a QRIS top-rated program that serves children ages 30 months to 10 years. Its premium rating has opened the door to other education opportunities, including its enrollment this year in the Oregon Preschool Promise pilot project. This made the center an obvious fit for the SMART program.
“We are very excited about the new (pre-kindergarten) SMART program at WOU,” said Michael Finlay ’09, SMART program manager. “As an alumnus of WOU I love coming back to campus and working with students. I look forward to working with the whole CDC staff to support their literacy efforts.”
In addition to one-on-one reading time, SMART provides children with free books to take home each month. They get to choose two titles from a list of about 300. In some cases, these new books help augment at-home collections; in others, they might be the only books children have.
The goal of sending home books, Gilbert said, is to create the understanding that reading is fun and can be part of everyday activities. Also, there’s an element of parent education infused in the program.
“We want to empower parents to read to their children,” she said. “That doesn’t even have to be saying the words. They could just talk about the pictures and make up their own story. It’s more important to connect for a moment than it is to read every word.”
Connections are a recurring theme in the SMART program. The statewide nonprofit organization established its model 25 years ago based on research showing that shared reading and access to books were the two strongest indicators of literacy skills. The personal connection that volunteers make with children is an added bonus.
“The reader and the child can connect,” said Ingrid Amerson, director of classroom/family engagement and SMART coordinator at CDC. “The bond is going to be great between the two.”
Of course, CDC teachers already provide literacy instruction to children at the center. Younger kids like to look at pictures and make up their own stories. School-age children challenge themselves to read chapter books and sometimes extrapolate on familiar tales.
“The older kids have such an expressive imagination,” said Gilbert. “They start telling their own stories and role playing together.” Eventually, they begin writing themselves, which is a milestone.
“Storytelling is an important developmental skill,” Gilbert said. “No matter what age they are, we let the kids lead us. If they are learning about habitats, for example, they might read a book about igloos. Then they might want to build one. Wherever the kids go, we follow that.”
Amerson said she’d like to have another one to three SMART volunteers lined up for the CDC program. That way, if a reader can’t come, there would be a backup. She and Gilbert agree there is more to the weekly visits than just reading. Volunteers also help children learn to navigate the back and forth of basic interactions.
“Having a conversation with a preschooler is a skill,” Gilbert said, smiling. “It takes patience because kids are still learning how to generate their own thoughts and then put them into words.”
Children at CDC have parents who are students at Western Oregon University, members of the faculty and staff or and residents from the Monmouth/Independence community. Amerson and Gilbert are pleased to offer families as many supports as they can, including the one-on-one story time and free books provided by SMART.
“What’s that saying? ‘It takes a village to raise a child’?” Amerson said. “That’s where SMART will come in. It will become that village for the child, and the family as well.”
“Whatever tool we can give parents, we want to do that,” Gilbert added. “Parents are the first teachers. You don’t have to be Einstein to be a teacher in a child’s life.”
To learn how to volunteer to be a SMART reader, check out the organization’s website.
To learn more about the Child Development Center, visit the program’s page on the TRI website.