Emma, a first-grader at Bay View Elementary School, sits down close to Elaine, a 78-year-old in the school library. Nearby, Emma’s classmate, Denim, pairs up with Ron, a 66-year-old retiree.
It’s a Reading Pals day at the Proctor-area school, joining senior community members with children in grades K-3 to read together during the 30-minute lunch period. The conversation between the students and their senior reading companions is friendly and fun, as they open their books and start to read. What started as a pilot program in 2013 in the small northeastern Minnesota communities of Proctor, Moose Lake, and McGregor, with funding from the Northland Foundation, has continued each year since. In 2016-2017, Two Harbors and Aitkin introduced Reading Pals in their elementary schools, too.
Reading Pals (part of the KIDS PLUS program) grew from the longtime priority of the Northland Foundation, shared and generously supported by The McKnight Foundation, to promote high-quality care and education for children, birth through third grade. Many of the children who are part of Reading Pals live in low-income households where there aren’t always books available or adults with the time or energy to read with them.
“We have found that older adult volunteers have both patience and time, which may be in short supply for busy parents who are stretched thin,” said Lynn Haglin, Northland Foundation Vice President/KIDS PLUS Director, of the Reading Pals program.
“We have found that older adult volunteers have both patience and time, which may be in short supply for busy parents who are stretched thin.” —Lynn Haglin, Northland Foundation Vice President
On a yearly basis, Reading Pals engages more than 300 school children. The 40-50 older adults volunteer, on average, 2-4 hours per week which adds up to 1,200+ hours during the course of a school year. Teachers in the participating school recommend students who may need extra help but who don’t quality for Title I. They report that Reading Pals helps their students become more confident readers, fosters a love of books and learning, boosts the children’s self-esteem, and makes them feel special.
“The kids really want to participate; it’s not a negative stereotype to be in this program,” explains Vicki Radzak, who coordinates Reading Pals in Moose Lake.
One older adult volunteer stated it well: “Being a Reading Pal opens the door for blending the old with the new, investing my old self with what I can give away to the young … new ideas and new and hopeful places to go with a book.”