Volunteers help young children read

vinn mannix gets Eliana, left, and Isabella, right, giggling about the animals in the story they are reading about a butterfly.  Mannix volunteers at Abel Elementary with the ReadingPals program.  Herald-Tribune staff photo / Rachel S. O'Hara  


vinn mannix gets Eliana, left, and Isabella, right, giggling about the animals in the story they are reading about a butterfly.  Mannix volunteers at Abel Elementary with the ReadingPals program. 

Herald-Tribune staff photo / Rachel S. O'Hara  

By Vin Mannix

MANATEE COUNTY — Eve’s smile lit up the classroom at Florine Abel Elementary School as she skipped toward our work table, but the 5-year-old didn’t sit down.

Instead, she did a model’s half-turn and waited for me to guess why she was beaming.

It was a pair of new sneakers with heels that light up!

But there was something else she wanted me to see: two animated characters on the backs of the sneakers.

“Who are they?” I asked.

Eve looked at me like, YOU DON’T KNOW?!

Uh, oh.

“It’s Elsa and Anna!” she said, her arms akimbo.

Of course, the sisters in Walt Disney’s “Frozen.”

D’oh!

Welcome to ReadingPals.

Moments like that have undoubtedly happened for my fellow 140 United Way volunteers involved in the 5-year-old program where 230 pre-kindergarteners learn to read at grade level at six different Manatee County District schools.

“It keeps you young,” said Gail Beliveau, a retired teacher and one of nine volunteers at Abel, who devote an hour on Tuesdays reading books with the children or Thursdays working with them on tablets.

“The kids look forward to it,” teacher Karen Brown said.

So do we.

It’s what keeps ReadingPals volunteers like me coming back year after year.

“They know who we are and that we’re here for them,” said Edith Thompson, who, along with husband Bob has been in ReadingPals since its inception.

“They’re so open to everything, so excited about life and learning,” said Karen Carpenter, the Manatee School Board chairperson.

“I’m proud to be a part of it,” said Gail Hedrick, a former phys ed teacher.

Principal James Horner appreciates ReadingPals and sets a welcoming tone at Abel, along with his staff.

“Pre-K is the new kindergarten,” he said. “You don’t see blocks and dolls. It’s more academic. There’s a curriculum they have to do, skills they want to attain before they get to kindergarten. It’s a nice age to come in and help them do that.”

We couldn’t do it without Brown.

Ellie the elephant

After 21 years in teaching, including five in Baltimore’s tough city schools, she can handle 20 precocious pre-kindergarteners, thank you. 

“She has such a grasp of her classroom,” Hedrick noted.

That Tuesday morning’s book was “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats, known for introducing multiculturalism into children’s literature in the 1960s. It’s the story of an African-American youth, who delights in the snow blanketing his neighborhood.

So do Eliana and Connor, reacting to the illustrations.

“They’re throwing snowballs!” Connor said.

"He made snow angels!” Eliana said.

They really get into it when the boy finds a towering snow mound and makes like he’s Sir Edmund Hillary on Mount Everest.

“He climbed up a great big tall heaping mountain of snow — and slid all the way down!” we read.

“Wheeeeeeeeee!” cry the 4-year-olds and this 67-year-old as we throw our arms in the air.

ReadingPals can be a gas, all right.

On Thursdays it’s onto the tablets, which some volunteers — like yours truly — have taken awhile to get the hang of using.

Unlike the children.

“I have that feeling the kids know more about them than we do,” Hedrick said.

Four-year-old Isabella sure enjoys them.

We were doing one exercise, “Animal Alphabet,” and she picked Ellie the elephant.

“Elephants are my favorite,” she said.

The tablet’s narrator said, “Ellie the elephant goes down to the river and rolls in the mud.”

“I can do that, too,” Isabella said.

OK.

“Ellie goes into the river,” the narrator went on.

“I can do that, too,” Isabella said.

OK.

“Ellie the elephant squirts her brother with water from her trunk,” the narrator said.

“I can do that, too,” Isabella said.

Oooh, not with that button nose.

Cute as they are, these 4-year-olds have their own identities and it behooves you to remember that.

I found that out the hard way.

“My name isn’t ‘sweetheart’,” one admonished me. “It’s Eliana!”

Firm but fair

Bob Thompson can relate.

He has one twin, Turiyah, in his group and his wife, Edith, has the other, Taliyah, in hers.

“I called the wrong one by her sister’s name. Whoa! She wasn’t happy with me,” Thompson said, chuckling.

Yes, it can be...challenging.

Like telling a child to sit still every five seconds.

Or please stop kicking your partner.

Or getting two lads to share one tablet.

Sue Wingert, who has a masters in guidance counseling, went old school to resolve that situation.

“We were working right along and one boy got frustrated with his buddy,” she said. “He decided he was unhappy and went under the table. He’s done this before. I try to be as diplomatic as I can, but at this point they need to understand what we’re trying to accomplish — when it’s this person’s turn, let’s try to be cooperative. You have to set limits because they’re 4.

“I said, ‘I’ll not tolerate this. I’ll get Miss Karen.’ Then his eyes got real big.”

Oh, no!

Brown is firm and fair, but understanding, too.

“Whatever issues they have, you have to work with them,” she said. “You’re always figuring it out because they’re growing in different ways and they all have different learning styles. It’s all a process.”

ReadingPals has become part of it.

“It’s a positive thing,” Brown said. “Every child loves one-on-one or one-on-two adult attention. That part in itself is good. Then they’re interacting with different people hearing different vocabulary in different situations. Kids who read become better readers and have a better vocabulary.”

Edith Thompson agreed.

“I’m impressed with their vocabulary and these kids are already good at maneuvering around the computer,” she said. “They think out of a different box than I do.”

Oh, yeah.

One day Eliana, Isabella and I were reading “Shades of People,” an illustrated introduction to diverse skin tones, by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly.

Upon reading the line, “Our skin is just covering, like wrapping paper,” what did the girls do?

They began playing rock-paper-scissors.

“These kids are full of surprises,” Brown said.