“The Little Engine that Could,” “Good Night Moon,” “The Cat in the Hat;” bedtime stories that many people either grew up reading or read to their own children. The stories were part of childhood, but they were also crucial for reading development and literacy skills. For the second year in a row, children in the Fort Wayne area have a new opportunity to develop these skills.
Members of the Christ Child Society of Fort Wayne, along with the Christ Child Society national office, saw a need in the Fort Wayne community to develop literacy skills in preschool children. The organization originally operated a tutoring program for elementary-age children at three Catholic schools in the area, but members felt like they could make an even bigger impact with a new program that worked only with preschoolers.
“They’re never too small to introduce to reading,” Pat Spoltman, president of the Christ Child Society of Fort Wayne, said.
Spoltman helped encourage the idea of working with preschoolers, which led to the creation of the Reading Rangers Program. This coincided with “Challenging Poverty, One Child at a Time,” a national program that encouraged local chapters to start the own programs that were most needed in their own communities.
The founder of the Christ Child Society, Mary Virginia Merrick, said that “Nothing is ever too much to do for a child.” Through the Reading Rangers Program, women in the Christ Child Society are giving children a chance to improve their foundational literacy skills. Studies have shown how much reading readiness impacts a child’s entire future.
Reading Rangers, headed by Barb Niezer, Lori Neumann and Dee Dee Dahm, began during the 2016-17 school year at St. Joseph School. It was so successful that the group plans to add a second school for the 2017-18 school year.
“We decided to approach St. Joe school because that was one place where we had tutored,” Spoltman said. “It was a place where Bishop Rhoades was asking Christ Child to really make a difference, as they were trying to get their school up off the ground for the population served.”
On the second Thursday of each month from September to May, women from the Christ Child Society go to St. Joe to read to the children in groups of four or five. They also discuss the stories, do crafts that go along with the story and give the children a copy of their own to take home. The goal is not only to expose these children to more books, but also to give them a chance to stock their home library and work on reading with their parents at home. Volunteers sent a letter home with each child, explaining to the parents what the child read and talked about that day. Letters are written in both Spanish and English.
“As we would walk through the door, the kids would just grab a hand,” Marlene Offerle said of last school year’s Reading Rangers program. Offerle was heavily involved in the program this past school year and is part of the push to expand the program further.
In many families below the poverty line, children do not have any books at home.
“The concept of not having a book in your home was just foreign to us,” Spoltman said. “It was pretty neat to see them get their book each month.
“It’s gone over very well,” she continued. “One of the children, one of the little boys, just couldn’t believe he was actually going to get a copy of the book to take home. It’s those things that really just get you.”
Right now, Spoltman estimates that 30-35 women are on the Reading Rangers committee. She said some have backgrounds in teaching and are especially helpful in picking the books for the school year. The group has the funding for these books and wants to continue to expand to more schools as volunteer power allows.
“It’s a great program and I think it’s something that will help children appreciate books and appreciate that they can then learn to read those books,” Offerle said. “It’s a program to help children just enjoy reading and it’ll help in their literacy. I think that’s so important, especially when we have so many children in our school who are bilingual.”
The group has already selected the nine books for the 2017-18 school year and is excited to add a second school to the program, an announcement that will be made closer to the start of the school year. The second school will read the same books, but will meet on alternate days and weeks from St. Joe to allow other committee members the chance to volunteer. Many of the volunteers are parents and grandparents themselves and enjoy working with the children as much as the children enjoy having them.
“It was really kind of exciting,” Offerle said. “The kids loved it and I think the women enjoyed it as much as the kids did.
“It’s watching children grow. It’s watching them expand from the beginning of the school year into much more confidence and much more self-assurance. It’s watching … the excitement of the children. When you see it in action, that’s when you know it was a good thing to pursue,” Spoltman said. “Sometimes you just see it in their face, it’s not even anything verbal, but you can see those wheels spinning and going, ‘Wow, this is great!’”
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