Big Brothers Big Sisters looking for volunteers for reading program

DOWAGIAC — Though the common saying is that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” one local organization is hoping that volunteers will use their lunch hours to make a difference in the lives and educations of local children.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lower West Michigan is currently seeking volunteers for its new Reading Buddies initiative that is launching this year at Justus Gage Elementary School. The program would require volunteers to commit to one year of volunteering and reading with a student one day a week during a child’s lunch period, which is noon to 12:40 p.m. There are currently 10 local children enrolled in the program, and at least seven more volunteers are needed to meet the needs of the program, according to Jenny Miner, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Lower West Michigan.

The Reading Buddies program, meant for students in first and second grade, is geared toward increasing literacy skills in young students at risk of falling behind before entering third grade. The program came about as a way to address the fact that 22 percent of students in Dowagiac passed the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress at the third grade level, Miner said.

“This is us looking at how we can address those scores by leveraging things we know work, mentorship and social skills, and using that mentoring relationship to power some literacy skills in little kids,” Miner said.

“We know that students who aren’t reading proficient by third grade are more likely to drop out of school, more likely to live in poverty as adults and more likely to have some major challenges as they get older. We don’t want that to happen. We want them to get the best education they can.”

Reading Buddies volunteers will receive orientation and training though Big Brothers Big Sisters prior to being matched with a student. The orientation will provide volunteers with an understanding of the children they will serve and their families, and will give volunteers a basic skill set for the weekly interactions of being a Reading Buddy, Miner said. All volunteers must be 18 years or older, pass a background check and provide references.

Miner said that she believes that the program will be a success and will improve literacy skills among Dowagiac students. More than just reading together, Miner said volunteers will also discuss the reading material with the students to building reading comprehension skills.

“Sometimes we can do better academically when we have a relationship that supports success,” she said. “We know that kids go home and fight with their parents about homework, so it can be hard for parents to be that person, because they also need to be the disciplinarian. For younger kids, if we can bring in an adult that is there for their purpose only and is more of a friend, that can sometimes support children in a way that is different than a parenting relationship, and we can find some real success there.”

Students will benefit from the program, but Miner believes that volunteers will benefit as well.

“I know they will have a great time,” she said. “I’ve had so many volunteers say, ‘I went into this to change someone else’s life, but it’s really changed mine.’”

Should the Reading Buddies program prove successful, Miner said she hopes to extend it past Justus Gage Elementary, and is already working to bring the program to Benton Harbor schools.

“If we can even just get a few kids to enjoy reading, I think we will have made a difference,” she said. “If you want to influence the next generation, the best way to do it is to develop a relationship with someone in that generation.”

For more information or to become a volunteer, call (269) 684-1100 or email executivedirector@bbbsoflwm.org.

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