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United We Read: The Power of Literature

All summer, volunteers read to groups of kids and teens across our communities to share in the power of literature. The kids weren't the only ones who gained valuable experiences along the way.

By Amy Hicks

As summer began, 14 United Way volunteers - including two UWFC staff members - excitedly deployed to read with 11 groups of youth between the ages of 10 and 15 for six weeks of summer reading.

Our purpose was clear: To bridge the summer reading gap that occurs when kids leave school for a two-month break and reading has the potential to drop as a household priority.

The book, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish, was carefully vetted and selected for the age and demographic groups of our young readers. Each volunteer read the book the book in advance and studied it for conversation topics.

What would happen next would be a learning experience for us all.

Day 1

We arrive at our first program with a book bag packed with books for each child, a craft kit in case we got tired of reading, and a plan for what appeared to be endless summer days. As we arrived for our first program, kids are scattered all over the lawn—talking, shooting hoops, playing tag and creating sidewalk chalk murals. A few stopped what they were doing to watch us enter the building, their expressions ranged from curious to skeptical.

Within a few minutes, counselors were organizing everyone into groups and lines. The oldest groups in the program begin shuffling toward the room where we would read. As with any groups of teens and pre-teens, there were mutterings of questions, a few arguments in the ranks on a wide range of topics, and at least one protest.

Once in the room, about eight kids piled into one bean bag chair, two kids balanced on classroom chairs, one crouched at the edge of a windowsill, and one was doing his best to hide in a back corner doorframe, hoodie pulled tight over his ears. Our first group, as it turns out, would be a small one with 12 students.

We learned about their interests (learning immediately that for most reading was not high on their list of interests), their candy preferences, their names and ages, and their perceptions of the book upon seeing the cover. A quick and obvious lesson when approaching a group this age: sharing insights exposes vulnerability, even at the level of favorite candy. Questions would need to be approached with care, as even the simple admission of preferring Twix over KitKat could be socially dangerous territory, and some kids found it safer to deny any relationship to candy rather than choose a favorite. “Candy? What? I don’t know anything about candy. I don’t eat.”

We noted that for this summer program, like most, the age of the kids varied a lot, things would move quickly, and chaos ensued if the kids aren’t engaged and moving. Our reading segment would provide a break in activity and so we would allow our participants to read along or to close their eyes, put their heads down or even lie down. Our sessions would be relaxed, although structured.

After a few minutes of get to know and exploring thoughts about the book, our volunteers began reading, pausing every few minutes to check-in with the group and ask about content. The kids did their best to be polite but ambivalent and indifferent about the story, although by Chapter 3, in one particularly surprising passage of the book, we heard an audible and collective *gasp* from around the room. That’s when we realized we had their attention.

As we finished the first session, we promised to return and said goodbye to the group. It’s possible that a few groaned when they heard we would be returning to read more, but in general they received us politely.

Visits to the other programs introduced us to larger groups, some wider age ranges, and more reactions to reading. Some kids were excited to receive a copy of the book while others would ask on a weekly basis why we were coming back.

Weeks 2-5

When we arrived for week two at the first program, the kid from inside the door jam with the hoodie waved immediately upon our arrival, clearly pleased to see us.

During week three, the character from our book was sent to the principal’s office for punishment. This spurred several debates in our “reading clubs” about appropriate punishments in a school setting.

As we entered week four, we approached one of our toughest group audiences by asking them to recap the prior weeks of content. We were surprised to find that some of the kids that expressed the most disinterest at the first reading of the book, provided the most accurate descriptions of the covered content four weeks later.

Things are not always as they seem.

Our volunteer readers ranged by occupation and experience from librarians and writers to bankers and healthcare providers. Ages ranged from recent college graduates to recently retired. Some readers were parents, others were not, and a few claimed to have never read a book out loud before. Regardless of whether the reader was highly expressive or soft-spoken, as the weeks continued, the kids fell into a rhythm with the volunteers, and the book content was absorbed.

In addition to reading, the groups had conversations about new vocabulary words, foreign language, cultural pride, travel, and the elements that make strong relationships, especially for families. As the summer progressed, more and more of the kids were contributing perspectives to the conversation, teaching each other as well as us volunteers.

The Last Day

At the last reading day at our first club, the group broke into applause upon completion of the book.

Reading opens new worlds by allowing us to step into the lives of others and see perspectives that differ from our own.

This is definitively true for those who read a wide variety of content. This summer, we learned that this is also true for those who read to or alongside others who share a different age and perspective. We experienced the power of literature to help us connect, engage, and grow.

Special thanks to Corning Credit Union and SAFE for supporting United We Read in our first summer program, which began in June of 2023. We also sincerely appreciate the efforts and time investment of our inaugural group of volunteer readers! Finally, we want to thank the programs and the kids that allowed our intrusion into their summer, and invited new characters and settings into their purview.

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