It has been more than a decade since Lake Forest resident Melinda Mooney first walked into Justin Hartley’s first grade class at South Elementary School in North Chicago and became his reading tutor.
Mooney, a former book publishing executive, was one of a growing network of volunteer reading specialists dispatched to South Elementary School by Lake Forest-based Reading Power. The nonprofit was founded in 2003, with a mission to provide literacy intervention and one-to-one tutoring to prekindergarten through-second grade students in underserved North Chicago and Zion elementary schools.
Hartley, six years old in 2007, was the youngest of three boys born to Jamaican parents who had immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s. He needed specialized reading support that neither his school nor his parents could provide.
“I was really little, so it’s hard to recall the exact details,” says Hartley, now a senior at North Shore Country Day School (NSCDS) in Winnetka. “We worked together in a bright room filled with books and posters. I remember it as a special time and space, where I felt free to ask questions.”
Mooney has her own memory of that day.
“I was struck by his kindness, his genuine curiosity and his willingness to work hard,” says Mooney, who now serves on Reading Power’s board of directors. “Sometimes the best tutoring happens when you say nothing and just let the student read.”
Although Hartley — now a 6’3,” 17-year-old — may be slightly hazy on the precise details of his first-of-many tutoring sessions with Mooney 10 years ago, he’s crystal clear on the profound impact the relationship had on his life.
“My participation in Reading Power changed the whole culture in our home,” Hartley says. “Yes, I got reading homework, but my parents got reading homework, too. We all started reading.
“Even today, we’re always reading.”
After finishing at South School, Hartley attended Learn 6 Charter School in North Chicago before gaining admission as a Class of 2019 student to the highly selective NSCDS.
Still in touch after all these years, Hartley and Mooney will team up again this fall at Reading Power’s 15th-year anniversary fundraiser at Highland Park Country Club on October 18 (6-10 p.m.)
The event will feature a reception, a book signing and a presentation, where Hartley will share his experience with Reading Power ahead of the evening’s featured guest speaker, Beth Ann Fennelly, poet-laureate of Mississippi and author of the book Heating and Cooling: 52 Micromemoirs.
“I can think of no deeper, more lasting, more magical gift to give a child than the gift of reading,” Fennelly says in a statement posted on Reading Power’s website. “To take a story into oneself; to look through the eyes of another, to practice taking another’s perspective, to gain empathy and social awareness — these are skills that change lives, that ameliorate the wounds of the world.”
Since 2003, Reading Power has provided one-to-one tutoring to more than 2,500 children, who struggled to read and write. While Reading Power students typically begin a school year far behind their peers, data show they quickly catch up. In the 2016-2017 school year, Reading Power first grade students made six-fold gains, second graders five-fold and kindergartens three-fold compared to their non-tutored classmates.
“We firmly believe that the earliest intervention is the best intervention,” says Mooney, a Reading Power volunteer for more than 10 years.
Mooney adds that Reading Power differentiates itself from other early intervention programs through its professionally developed, researched-based curricula. Reading Power’s site coordinators work closely with classroom teachers to ensure that reading plans are individualized daily for each student. Volunteers go through a rigorous training process and work with students during the school day as many as three to five times a week in a dedicated, onsite Reading Power classroom.
“One of the keys to Reading Power’s success is consistency,” Mooney explains. “Tutors share notes on a student. Homework, along with sight word practice, is given every night.”
Hartley enjoys reading memoirs and autobiographies today, and he recently completed an independent study in English. In addition to school work and college applications, he is hard at work writing a memoir, chronicling the story of his parents’ arrival in the United States and “the facets” of his life — like Reading Power — that shaped the person he is today.
“Isn’t he an impressive young man?” a beaming Mooney says of Hartley’s plans for the future.
“I’m so proud of his journey.”
To purchase tickets to Reading Power’s 15th Anniversary Celebration on October 18, or for more information about becoming a Reading Power tutor, please visit readingpowerinc.org.