ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Schools throughout Essex County have partnered with the RSVP Center of Essex and Hudson Counties, part of the Jewish Family Service, for the Reading Buddies program, which makes the most of intergenerational friendships. The Reading Buddies, a group of senior citizens, read to small groups of children in Essex County to increase literacy and reading comprehension. Already a fixture at Mount Pleasant School in West Orange and South Mountain Elementary School in South Orange, the project has now expanded to include Washington Elementary School in West Orange.
“This is the largest volunteer program we have,” Stephanie Grove, director of the Reading Buddies program, said in a Nov. 2 phone interview. “Each volunteer reads to four or five kids every week, and they really get to know each other.”
Grove said that some children may not have someone at home to read to them like the Reading Buddies.
“It increases their reading comprehension, which, if you’re behind after third grade, it can be hard to catch up,” she said. “It works for both age groups. (Seniors) light up when they see the kids; it gives them a purpose to go out. It adds a brightness to their day. We have a lot of retired teachers and librarians, and people whose grandchildren are grown or who don’t have grandchildren. The kids’ faces light up, they really respond to it.”
The Reading Buddies read to approximately 680 children in Essex and Hudson counties, with 70 volunteers in different elementary schools; volunteers go through an interview and training process before they reach the classroom. The program works with schools to decide which books to read, but many of the literary choices are left up to the children and volunteers.
“The Day the Crayons Quit,” a children’s book by Drew Daywalt, is always a popular choice, according to Stephanie Gerstein, who has been volunteering with the Reading Buddies since the beginning of the program. She reads to first- and second-graders at Orange’s Lincoln Avenue School.
“No matter how many times you read it, they want to read it again,” Gerstein said in a phone interview on Nov. 3. “You’re with the same kids the whole year and you develop a rapport with them, you get hugs when you go. It’s a rewarding experience.”
Reading isn’t the only thing they do together, according to Gerstein. There are activities that go along with a book that the volunteers can do together; she read a book about knitting with her group and now they are learning how to knit.
The generation gap between the volunteers and the students is bridged easily, Gerstein said.
“I would think if you enjoy being with children it wouldn’t matter,” she said, adding that many of the students remember who their Reading Buddy is from year to year, adding another layer of excitement to the day for them. “I’m not an authority figure, I’m a buddy. I’m not there to teach them because there’s a teacher there.”
South Mountain Principal Alyna Jacobs said the Reading Buddies program has been a welcome addition to a pre-existing program in which the South Orange-Maplewood School District’s Parenting Center sends Columbia High School students into the elementary schools to read to students.
“(The Parenting Center) felt that the Jewish Family Services’ program pairing of seniors with elementary school students would be a wonderful addition to this effort,” Jacobs said in a Nov. 5 email. “The adults have been received wonderfully by the students and staff, and teachers report that the small group interactions with the volunteers is always nice for kids. We believe the intergenerational interactions are wonderful.”
The Reading Buddies have been working with South Mountain School since 2016, and Jacobs said students look forward to reading with their buddies, especially what she called the “silly books.”
And now the program has expanded to Washington School after West Orange Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky recommended them for the first- and second-grade classes.
“This will teach them a lot, because many of our students don’t have someone to read out loud to them at home,” Washington Principal Marie DeMaio said in an interview on Nov. 5. “I think it’s nice to have someone reading to you besides your teacher as well.”
Wendi Giuliano, Washington School’s reading specialist, said the Reading Buddies program is a good way to bring the community to the students.
“The kids can decide where they want to go,” she said in an in-person interview on Nov. 5, about how students choose books, adding that students “get involved with the community and are able to be with its members; it brings the community to them.”
DeMaio and Guiliano said the students have loved working with the Reading Buddies; last week’s Halloween festivities at school conflicted with the program and it was cancelled, and the students were disappointed.
DeMaio said she wants to keep the program going, and possibly add another grade at Washington.
“Any experience is helpful,” she said. “This exposes them to books that they might not have, and the Reading Buddies give them attention as an individual that they maybe don’t get at home.
Gerstein said that almost all the volunteers who read to students in Orange returned for this school year. She sees the benefit of the program for the both herself and the students.
“Both participants find it really rewarding,” she said.
Photos Courtesy of Wendi Giuliano