By Geoff Folsom Spokesman
The SMART Reading program has some volunteers who’ve been with it all 28 years it’s been in Central Oregon. Ben Fields of Redmond has only been doing it five weeks, but wants to do it for a long time.
Fields is one of 23 SMART (formerly Start Making A Reader Today) volunteers who currently read each week to 81 Redmond School District kindergartners, primarily at the Redmond Early Learning Center. While the program has been shown to improve third-grade reading comprehension and high school graduation rates, Fields said the personal reward is the greatest part.
“It’s all personal,” he said. “I love the kids, but this is joy for me — just being with kids and seeing the smiles.”
Fields and the other readers come every week to schools across Oregon and spend 20 minutes reading to a child, said Jennifer Zardinejad, SMART Reading’s central area manager. Zardinejad’s area covers five counties in Central and Eastern Oregon.
“They really build that relationship piece,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to be with a caring adult each week.”
Oregon’s SMART Reading program, which is funded almost exclusively by private donations, is unique because it not only provides volunteers to read books to children, kids can bring home up to 14 books a year. Zardinejad said that allows them to build their own home libraries.
More than 700 books a year are given away in Redmond, she said.
While the program is used for pre-kindergarten to third grades, it is used just in kindergarten in the Redmond district. Along with the Early Learning Center, SMART Reading is offered at Tumalo School and after school in Terrebonne.
With only two staff members and a limited budget, kindergarten reading is the priority, Zardinejad said.
“If we can instill a love of reading in kindergartners, the younger, the better,” she said.
With the Early Learning Center being converted to a neighborhood elementary school and kindergarten being spread out across the school district as part of its restructuring to reduce class size, where SMART Reading will be offered in the 2020-21 school year is uncertain. But Zardinejad is confident it will be available at a Redmond elementary school.
“The school district here is really supportive of SMART,” she said.
The program doesn’t have the budget or staff currently to offer SMART Reading in more than one elementary school within Redmond, Zardinejad said. But she said they are looking for more volunteers because there is a demand for more students to be able to take part.
The district determines which students are the best fit for SMART, Zardinejad said.
Cathy Schroth of Crooked River Ranch, who is also in her first year as a SMART volunteer, finds reading to children rewarding.
“Five-year olds are the best, and it’s important to learn how to read,” she said. “I love watching them really pay attention when you don’t think they are. They love going home with a book.”
Schroth advises others to volunteer with SMART Reading.
“Do it,” she said. “It’s easy, and it’s fun. I don’t even know a negative thing about it.”