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Volunteers from the community -- of any age -- make this school reading program work

DAVID F. ASHTON - Opening up the SMART book rack at the beginning of another session is Marysville Elementary School program coordinator Apollonia Quale - to the joy of the kindergarten participants. Founded in 1992, "Start Making A Reader Today" (SMART) has engaged volunteers in our neighborhoods, reading one-on-one with prekindergarten through third-grade children – and they also give participating kids books to keep and take home.

In Inner Southeast, a star SMART volunteer – Apollonia Quale – went on to become a SMART coordinator at Marysville Elementary School, just south of Holgate Boulevard in the Foster-Powell neighborhood. The school was in ashes, you may remember, after a major school-day fire that has never been explained. Nobody was hurt, and the school was rebuilt and reopened.

Quale said she started in 2009 as a volunteer in the SMART program, took a break, and then came back to the program in 2012. "I started, because I'm a big fan of reading; when I was a kid, reading provided 'an escape' for me, from the family that I was living in.

"As a mom, reading is so important to my kids and myself that I can't imagine kids not having books," Quale told THE BEE. "So I love being part of an organization that puts two books a month, fourteen per year, into the hands of our participants to take home, keep, and build their own personal library."

As the SMART coordinator at Marysville, Quale matches volunteer adult "readers" with kids; helps select the books brought into their program; and makes sure both the adults and kids follow the SMART program rules.

Volunteers are vetted both by the SMART program, through a background check process, and again, through the school district's background check process, before they're allowed to participate.

"I don't think it's a difficult process for volunteers; but it's necessary to have these screening processes in place to screen to help keep kiddos safe," Quale remarked. "It is not difficult; it's a simple application process, similar to one that one might encounter when getting a job."

Give an hour a week

The program encourages readers to come in every week, but they decide what works best for them; different schools present SMART programs on different days during the school week, for seven months – October through May – during the school year.

"Our program here runs for an hour and a half, and many volunteers commit to the whole 90 minutes," Quale said, "but some can only read for 30 minutes, and we're happy to have them.

"And it is an October through May commitment, so we volunteers do have our summers free. We start about a month and a half after school starts, and finish about a month and a half before the school year ends."

Not only do the participants learn to read better, it gives them a love of books she smiled. "I also work as a Volunteer Leader with the Children's Book Bank; one of the student volunteers there said she comes in to help clean up books to be given to kids, because she herself is a SMART reader, and wants to help other kids, which I think is incredible," recalled Quale.

As a professional educator, Marysville School Principal Lana Penley commented, "The SMART program helps academically, and it's fun – which is one of the best interventions there could possibly be! It connects kids with academic learning, and also, the kids enjoy it and really look forward to going to spend time with their reader."

There's still time to try out being a SMART volunteer yourself at a nearby school. To learn more, go online – www.getsmartoregon.org

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