This fall, Reading Power Inc., a Lake Forest-based literacy program, will mark 10 years of tutoring students in North Chicago. For those who have served or who are currently serving as volunteers for the organization, the anniversary is the perfect time to reflect on the program’s important initiative. “We want our students to become independent lifelong learners,” Reading Power Executive Director Rebecca Mullen, M.S.Ed., says. “It’s very satisfying to know that we’re providing the foundation for our students to become excited about literacy.”
On October 16, Reading Power will commemorate its 10th anniversary with a celebration luncheon. The event, which will take place at Greenbelt Cultural Center in North Chicago, will honor the Gorter Family Foundation and include a presentation from National Louis University President Dr. Nivine Megahed. For those who have volunteered for or supported the program over the years, the luncheon will be a time of celebration.
Reading Power was founded in 2003 by Lake Forest native Mary Jane N. Hender, Ed.D., a reading specialist, and Reverend Gordon Butcher, D. Min., a literacy activist, to provide early intervention and individual attention to students in need of literacy services in North Chicago elementary schools. In 2003, the organization started with 25 tutors in one elementary school; today, more than 160 tutors work in four North Chicago elementary schools. The program takes place during the school day and serves students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. “The earlier you can intervene, and the less time the child spends behind his or her peers, the easier it is to close the gap,” Rebecca explains. “So we tutor the youngest possible students, to close that gap early.”
The program, though volunteer-based, is run by professionals, and each elementary school has a site coordinator or professional tutor with an education background. Other volunteers simply need a love of reading and writing, and must be willing to dedicate one regularly scheduled morning or afternoon during the school year. They receive intensive training at the beginning of the school year, as well as continued training throughout the year, in order to apply the researched curriculum when working with their students.
Over the years, the organization has had an 80 percent tutor retention rate, which indicates how rewarding the experience of tutoring children can be. “We do find that this sort of challenge is very satisfying to our volunteers,” Rebecca says. “It’s a magical formula, because the kids are getting exactly what they need, and the tutors learn a lot about literacy, education, and themselves.”
Reading Power tutors work with children who are typically in the bottom 20 percent of their grade and who aren’t receiving any other district-sponsored services (such as special education). The students are taken out of their classrooms during the day to receive tutoring, and they are matched with the same tutor for the entire year, which helps the tutors build rapport with their students. “It’s such gratifying work, because you don’t know where your positive influence starts and stops,” Rebecca says. “With education, the seed you plant during the school year may be something that blooms 10 years down the road, when that child or young adult is able to find success.”
As a reading specialist herself, Rebecca also understands the gratification of seeing the immediate results of a child’s increased confidence. “A child who, in September, may not look you in the eye or who is just learning to write his name will, by the end of the school year, be bounding into the classroom, excited to show you the book he read or the story he wrote,” Rebecca says. “You can really see the tangible growth in the kids throughout the year.”
Now, as the new school year is in full swing, Reading Power volunteers are looking forward to another year of rewarding work, as they watch students grow and develop intellectually and socially. Above all, they value a child’s ability to read—which opens doors to innumerable possibilities. “Literacy is the ability to live a full life,” Rebecca says. “So we’re laying the foundation early for our students, so that they are able to excel academically and live a full life.”
Reading Power’s 10th Anniversary Celebration will take place on Wednesday, October 16 at 11:30 a.m. (luncheon and program begin promptly at noon) at the Greenbelt Cultural Center, 1215 Green Bay Road in North Chicago. To purchase tickets for the event, to learn more about volunteering for Reading Power, or to make a donation, visit readingpowerinc.org.
-Ann Marie Scheidler // Photography by Jim Prisching