On a Thursday afternoon, six-year-old Anahi Solis sits in a classroom with 19 other young children. Many are chatting excitedly about the whales and llamas described on the pages in front of them.
But Anahi is quiet amid the clamor, poring over a small paperback reader, her index finger traveling along each line of print.
“I’m reading a story about owls now, and yesterday I read ‘Biscuit, the Puppy’,” she said.
A first-grader at Manatee Elementary, Anahi is honing her skills in the “YMCA Reads!” after-school program.
She and her family recently visited Disney World in Orlando.
“I want to read about Mickey Mouse and other animals we saw there,” Anahi said.
YMCA Reads! is a volunteer-driven literacy program for students in Kindergarten through third grade who need help learning to read. Students meet with their tutors twice a week after school for one hour.
“The goal here is for each child to make progress toward the Florida Department of Education’s performance expectations for elementary students,” said Program Coordinator Jan Rotar.
YMCA Reads! developed through a partnership between the Florida Alliance of YMCAs, the State Department of Education, and the Volunteer Florida Foundation. Last October, the Marco Island YMCA received a grant to administer the program at Manatee Elementary School.
Participating children build academic skills, self-confidence and an interest in learning.
“We monitor each child’s progress, and encourage family involvement,” Rotar explained.
Interested parents were the driving force to get the program started, said the school’s principal, Connie Cox.
“Many of them knew their kids were struggling in reading lessons, and they wanted extra help,” she said.
A little more than half of the students at Manatee Elementary School live in homes where Spanish or Creole is the primary language.
“We’re glad to provide this program for the children, without any cost to the parents,” Cox said. Free transportation is also provided for the students.
Jesus Solario, a first-grader who likes cars and trucks, said he wants to become a good reader.
“I want to learn about all kinds of trucks and cars, so I’ll know which ones I should buy,” the 7-year-old said.
Since its inception in September 2005, YMCA Reads! has served over 1,000 students in 27 Florida schools.
“It’s been successful in other parts of the state,” Cox said, “so we’re hoping to see improved scores on our students’ DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) in April.”
As more volunteers are being recruited for the YMCA Reads! program, Cox said they would also be welcome to get involved in other school activities.
“Many volunteers have interesting life experiences to share, and they can help children build prior knowledge,” she said.
Rotar would like to see more reading tutors volunteering from Marco Island and similar communities.
“They can literally cross that bridge, from their lifestyle to the economically disadvantaged areas in East Naples, where these children are growing up. It’s a real eye-opener,” she said. “We’ve seen a real community effort, in building the YMCA Reads! program. Last summer at the YMCA camp, members of Habitat for Humanity in East Naples helped pave the way for us to meet some of the families who later became involved with the reading program.”
Joan and Ralph Coffey of Montgomery County, Maryland, are volunteer tutors in the program.
“We’re on Marco Island for two months each winter,” Joan said, “and we couldn’t pass up this opportunity. The whole world opens up to a child who can read.”
Ralph Coffey, a retired engineer, has also taught reading through a literacy program in New York.
“Kids need to get a good start in reading,” he said. “If they don’t, they’ll just be dragging through school all the way, and feeling frustrated.”
Rotar has 15 years of experience as a special educator, focused on reading instruction.
“Children who cannot read will often stay withdrawn, physically and emotionally, in the school environment. Literacy is a key to entering our society, whether it’s for job opportunities, or basic communications.”
Applications are now being accepted for volunteering in the YMCA Reads! program.
“We need people for just one or two hours a week,” Rotar invited. “It’s rewarding to see a young child get excited about learning.”
“This is the greatest gift you can give,” Joan Coffey said. “When the kids get a new word or idea, you can see the ‘I got it’ in their eyes, and they give you that big smile. I love that moment!”