Reaching out through reading: Local volunteers bring the joy of books to youth through Words Alive programs

By Kathy Day

Lula Sutherland and Nora Kaiser make no bones about the importance of reading in one’s life.

The two former teachers and their fellow Words Alive volunteers put their time behind their commitment to helping bridge the literacy gap.

“I feel so strongly that literacy and culture oftentimes are a social phenomenon,” said Sutherland, an Encinitas resident who participates through the Family Literacy and Early Literacy programs. “If parents are not reading to their children, the children don’t know how important it is to read.”

Kaiser, who serves as a Teen Services Adolescent Book Group volunteer, reiterated the significance of their work.

“Words Alive’s mission is to impact kids through reading,” the Rancho Santa Fe resident said. “It connects them to another part of their life.”

In addition to the programs the two local women support, Words Alive also oversees Rolling Readers and Community Reading Initiatives in its efforts to “develop a more thriving literary community,” according to its website, www.wordsalive.org.

Sutherland, who taught second and third grade at Del Mar Pines School before retiring, has been working with Words Alive for about a year and recently was named Family Literacy Program Volunteer of the Year.

In the latter program, the volunteers teach parents the importance of reading for their children, sharing ways to help them develop reading skills and encouraging them to make reading a family adventure. During the seven-week classes, volunteers also work with the children and play with them while their parents are in class and provide books and take-home lessons for the family to do together.

“The parents that come are committed to being the best parents they can be,” she said.

Sutherland also assists with the Early Literacy Program, reading once a month to children in low-income preschools and child-care centers. Various team members visit the centers twice a week and read to groups of 18 to 20 children in four classes.

“It’s great fun,” she said, adding that she’s been very impressed with the quality of the teachers and centers where she volunteers. “The kids are delightful. There’s no easier task than reading to children.”

Kaiser, who was introduced to the teen book group aspect of Words Alive by her friend Kay Gurtin, was a teacher, too. She stepped away from teaching to raise her children, but stayed connected by volunteering at her children’s schools. But now that her children are in college, she’s found a new arena and a totally different group of children to help.

“It’s been an eye-opener,” she said of her experiences working with the students at Choice Summit, a City Heights program. Choice Community School is a self-contained classroom for students in grades 7 to 12.

About 15 to 20 high school students, some as old as 20 who are still trying to earn their GED certificates, participate in the program that’s “kind of like a book club” where they talk about the meaning of the books and how the characters relate to their own lives, Kaiser explained.

A different volunteer leads the discussion each time, and on occasion a student  has stepped into that role, she added. The same team of eight volunteers works with the students.

The students can keep the books, and many have started building their own libraries at home, which Kaiser sees as a sign of the program’s impact.

They also have guest speakers visit — sometimes authors, sometimes people such as Steve Kerr, five-time NBA champion and now head coach of the Golden State Warriors, who came to talk about the obstacles of life and basketball after they read a book about the sport. They’ve also heard from a Holocaust survivor and a former gang member who is now an executive chef at a well-known Las Vegas hotel.

The program started when a Words Alive volunteer who was working in another program saw the need to encourage reading among the teens.

“Some of the students are in gangs, but all of us treat them as if they were our own kids,” she said. In fact, the classroom teacher said there are four gangs in the area. But he told them, “they are united in one classroom and leave it on the streets.”

Kaiser, who has worked with Words Alive for eight years, said, “They find comfort and security there, and we have really good discussions.”

With alternative schools losing funding and communities looking for other avenues to provide education, this program “gives these kids one more chance,” she added.

Kaiser and Sutherland each talked about how rewarding their volunteer work is, yet both were clear in noting that the importance is not how they feel, but how important reading is in the lives of young people.

“Simply reading and exposing the young to reading creates interest in pursuing it as they grow,” Sutherland said.

Volunteers are needed for the reading programs as well as assisting in the office or fundraising efforts. Volunteer or learn more at

www.wordsalive.org

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