by Sarah Einselen
Most weekdays, Annette Russell runs Security Federal Savings Bank as its CEO. But once a month, she transforms into an eagerly anticipated storyteller at Landis Elementary School.
Opening a children’s storybook, she quizzes a class full of first-grade children — most of whom are seated within arm’s reach around the rocking chair in Julie Kistler’s classroom — about the parts of a book. Children quickly put up their hands to point out the book’s cover, back, title and spine, but they’re almost stumped when she asks what else usually goes on the cover: the name of the author.
“I think it’s so generous that she comes once a month and reads,” said Kistler. “And she’s done it for seven years.”
Russell is just one of 58 Logansport professionals who are volunteering with Cass County Reading Railroad’s Business Partner Program this year, representing 21 local businesses and some private individuals. The program, now in its fifth year, pairs each volunteer with a kindergarten or first-grade class in Cass County, where the volunteers visit once a month to facilitate a special story time.
The program reaches every kindergarten and first-grade class in the Logansport elementaries, as well as Thompson Elementary, Pioneer Elementary and All Saints School.
This year, Reading Railroad volunteers want to expand the Business Partner Program into the county’s preschools, too.
Russell began reading for Kistler’s students when her own son, Josh, was in Kistler’s class. Even though Josh is in junior high now, Russell has kept visiting Kistler’s students regularly to read to them throughout each school year.
When she visits, Russell starts with some questions and answers about books, then reads a story the children haven’t heard from their teacher, and ends by reminding them to read 20 minutes each day and giving each child a sticker.
By springtime, she might turn the rocking chair over to one of the students, who will read to the class — with her looking on as one of the eager listeners.
Part of Reading Railroad’s larger literacy efforts, the program helps increase awareness about literacy’s importance because volunteers demonstrate that importance, said Nikki Reed, Reading Railroad director.
“Reading aloud to children is an important component of their early literacy development,” said Reed. “Not only does this increase their interest in books and reading, but it also helps increase their knowledge of printed letters and words and the relationships that exists between sound and print.”
One snag the program ran into this year was buying the books for volunteers to read.
In the past, said Reed, Reading Railroad provided the books that volunteers read each month, and after those books were read, the volunteers donated them to the class libraries.
Reading Railroad could not provide the books this year because of the cost — about $50 per classroom — so teachers are choosing books out of their classroom libraries for the volunteers to read.
“We know that the volunteers enjoyed having the opportunity to donate the books and the teachers appreciate the opportunity to expand their classroom libraries,” said Reed, so Reading Railroad is starting to look for help funding the purchase of the books for future years of the Business Partner program.
The daily reading time is “probably one of their favorite times of the day,” Kistler said of her students. “When I say I’m going to read, they say ‘yay!’”
But the once-a-month time with Russell is extra-special.
“I think when they see her out in public, they can see what her real profession is. They’ve come back and said they’ve seen her at the bank or at a football game,” Kistler said.
Russell was a member of the original Reading Railroad focus group that developed the Business Partner Program. She’s certain that helping children understand the importance of reading is not only a worthy goal, but a fun one, too.
“They sit and their eyes just light up,” Russell said. “Their eyes get so big, like ‘oh, what’s going to happen next?’ It’s an excellent way to start getting kids engaged in reading.”
• Sarah Einselen is news editor for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at email@example.com or 574-732-5151.