The National Christ Child Society professes a simple, but powerful slogan: “Nothing is ever too much to do for a child.” For Fort Wayne chapter members and Reading Rangers volunteers Lori Neumann and Dianne Bezdon, it means responding to the needs of our local community by being the hands and feet of Jesus.
“Mary Virginia Merrick founded this entire society on the spirituality that Christ is in each of these children,” Neumann explained. “You’re seeing Jesus in each child, reaching out to them. So when we read to these kids, we are imagining that we are serving Jesus personally.”
The Reading Rangers Program is a local initiative born from a need expressed by the National Christ Child Society to increase literacy in young children. Now in its third year, Reading Rangers has expanded from one school, St. Joseph School on Brooklyn Avenue in Fort Wayne, to two, with Most Precious Blood School, also in Fort Wayne. Its format is simple: Christ Child Society volunteers travel to the preschool classes of each school once per month to read fun books to small children.
Each school offers a different routine for these special days each month. The Christ Child Society volunteers join the classes for opening prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance at St. Joseph to begin the day, then break into groups with three or four children for each adult. Following the recitation of a book, the kids access a canvas bag from the volunteer to discover what relevant craft or activity they will also be doing together.
An added treat is that the children take home a copy of each month’s book to keep at home, which includes a letter to their parents on ways to incorporate discussion questions that will increase reading comprehension and expand their vocabulary. Finally, the class reconvenes for a skit or performance to tie key concepts of the book together and to encourage young students to love reading.
Neumann added, “We’re careful when we choose the books. We want them to be age-appropriate but also fit the needs of language.” Both schools were identified as having a specific need for this unique program, and the kids are already demonstrating impressive literacy improvements. “Even within the first four months of the school year, I can see their improvement of language skills,” Bezdon elaborated.
Even more than giving of their time to these children, the volunteers receive the joy of building a special relationship with the preschoolers. Each child “lights up” when seeing his or her “grandma,” as they affectionately call the reading volunteers, explains Neumann. There are bright smiles exchanged, because for some children, the books they are given are the only ones they’ve ever owned. They are receiving a special gift in the form of love, time and a book to keep. “They know we’re there because we love them,” Bezdon shared,
Both Neumann and Bezdon feel that their participation in the Reading Rangers program has positively influenced their own Catholic faith, as well. For Neumann, it’s a way to put what she believes as a Catholic into an important and valuable work of mercy. “As you get older,” she reflected, “you lost your contact with childlike innocence, and volunteering for this program reconnects me to my faith by making everything come alive through the eyes of a child again.”
Bezdon concurred, adding, “My faith has been made stronger by seeing the love in the eyes of the children we serve. I thank God for bringing us to these children.”
It’s evident that what the Fort Wayne chapter of the Christ Child Society is doing with the Reading Rangers Program reflects the values of the society, as well as of the individuals who volunteer.
Every two years, the National Christ Child Society holds a large convention in which each of the 44 chapters nationwide are invited to attend. During the convention, one chapter’s outstanding program is recognized with an accolade called the Red Wagon Award, which includes a $1,000 grant. This year the recipient was the Fort Wayne Reading Rangers Program. Neumann shares that their grant money will go toward the purchase of more books for the kids they serve.
Because of its expansion and success, the Reading Rangers Program is seeking volunteers who feel a call to share their time with young children in need of a positive adult role model. The only requirement is to first become a member of the Fort Wayne chapter of the Christ Child Society. The commitment level is minimum, Neumann and Bezdon said. Volunteer readers typically spend about one-and-a-half hours per month reading to students. Current members are eager to mentor new volunteers, as well.
“We are open to guests who are interested in learning more about our society. You can also shadow our reading volunteers before making a commitment,” Bezdon added.
For more information on the Christ Child Society and specifically the Reading Rangers Program, visit christchildfw.org or contact either Deb Schmieman or Becky Kawiecki at [email protected].
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