Julie Gorham / Citrus Chronicle
Just one hour of reading a week can change a child’s life.
That is what Citrus County ReadingPals coordinator Rachel Eubanks said the grant-funded early literacy program has been doing for local preschoolers for the past two years.
The United Way of Citrus County enters its third year of ReadingPals on Sept. 12, continuing to pair volunteers with pre-kindergarteners while adding pilot program kindergarten classes at two schools.
“We are in all of the public elementary schools and five private schools — and now are expanding to John Paul II Catholic School and into kindergarten classes at Forest Ridge Elementary and Hernando Elementary,” Eubanks said. “It is exciting. For being a small county, we have dedicated volunteers that work to help our children.”
Currently, volunteers visit preschool classrooms weekly to engage in reading and related literacy activities. Each preschool child spends 30 minutes one-on-one with a volunteer — with adults mentoring two kids per hour. With the expansion into kindergarten, one volunteer will be mentoring three students at a time, equaling six children per hour.
“It’s more than just a reading program; it’s mentoring,” Eubanks said. “It has to be an hour commitment each week. We are very fortunate to have our volunteers who are committed to this program for 30 weeks.”
The reading program is comprised of specialized curriculum that aligns with public school standards, and increased test scores have been documented in children who have participated in the program.
“It is proven when children are read to they are more likely to become good readers later in life,” Eubanks said. “Last year, the growth children had in their print knowledge showed an average of a 127 percent gain.”
To maintain the same level of success, Eubanks is coordinating reading and literacy materials to grade level curriculum.
“We partner with the school district and some kindergarten teacher to build out the curriculum and make sure it supports the teachers and their instructions so they feel they are getting the most out of this time.”
On top of weekly classroom visits, the United Way was able to provide 17 brand-new take-home books to every child in the program this year. Next year, Eubanks hopes to present 20 to each student and school.
They were also able to hold several literacy family nights in coordination with Citrus County Library System.
“There are so many simple things parents can do to help build skills at home. We think every child should be getting read to every night, but we understand that sometimes that can’t happen,” Eubanks said. “That’s where we hope the volunteers can help fill that void, but there are things parents can do to help support those skills.”
Funding from the Children’s Movement of Florida and Publix allows ReadingPals to prosper. The program was started by Carol Jenkins Barnett, daughter of Publix founder George Jenkins.
“They felt very strongly about children’s literacy, so they developed the ReadingPals program,” Eubanks said. “We are one of 15 in the state of Florida.”
Approximately 166 children were aided by 145 volunteers in Citrus County this school year. Local United Way staff is aiming higher for the 2017-2018 school year; their goal is to reach at least 200 volunteers, and serve 200 children.
For more information, or to become a volunteer, visit www.citrusunitedway.org/programs/reading-pals/index.
Contact Chronicle reporter Julie Gorham at 352-563-3236 or firstname.lastname@example.org.