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Learning Matters: Reading expands minds, develops relationships

I've never been much of a fundraiser in my volunteer roles, in PTA or elsewhere. In my first PTA presidency, I probably earned the record for money not raised, but I always loved the reading events.

Read-a-thons were the most fun, where the focus was on the minutes read rather than the money earned.

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Prizes for reading were modest but memorable. One year in the early 1990s, we had special grade-level lunches featuring adventure tales told by master story-telling principal Ken Henisey.

We followed that up with a reading and book-signing by local author and illustrator Amy Goldman Koss, who I'd met when she read to our children at the library. Another year, the prize for "Reading Magic" was a guest appearance by a Magic Castle magician.

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For us, and I hope for other parents, the read-a-thons resulted in treasured memories. However many dishes remained on our kitchen counter, whatever frustrations had arisen in the course of the day, the evenings calmed as we sat down to read "The Wizard of Oz," "Little House on the Prairie" or "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Reading in our house wasn't limited to read-a-thons, but those communal efforts provided special motivation.

Another memorable story-sharing program started in 1993, when the Glendale Library put out a call for "Grandparent Readers" to read to elementary children.

Ken "Pop" Scott answered the call at John Muir Elementary and made his first appearance in Taleen Petrossians' classroom during her first year as a teacher.

My only involvement in that program was as the parent of children lucky enough to enjoy Scott's visits. He became a celebrity among students at Muir and Mann elementaries as he read and spoke with class after class of students and their appreciative teachers.

At the end of each school and story-reading year, he'd present his listeners with a penny. "It's not much," he'd tell them, "but it's mine, and I'm giving it to you," much as he'd given his time.

One afternoon, I happened to be in the school office as he finished what must have been a particularly wearying day of reading. He shared what I felt was a momentary doubt about the overall effect of his years of reading, and whether it would make a difference for the students in the long run.

It struck me then, as I answered him, that we might never know, but we had to assume that efforts like his, given as freely as his pennies, represented an absolute good.

Not only did children hear great stories, but they experienced a close-up relationship with a volunteer storyteller who clearly enjoyed his young audience. Whatever the measurable outcome, his time would make a difference somehow.

Ken Scott died two weeks ago, at the age of 102. At his memorial service, his children spoke about their father's encounters with former students who, seeing Scott in town, pulled out the pennies they still carried.

Retired librarian Carolyn Flemming, who led the Grandparent Readers program from its inception until 2002, told me in an email that "close to 100 people served as volunteer readers for at least a year, [and]…at one point almost 40 volunteers were reading at 15 elementary schools to more than 2,200 students."

A few, like Ken Scott, read for many years to more than 15 classes. Donnalee Monninger, who also started as a Grandparent Reader in 2003, told me she's still reading to five classes each week at Cerritos Elementary, the school she attended as a child.

But she is among the last of the Grandparent Readers, as recruitment and training of new volunteers ceased some years ago.

"As is always true, people come with their own passions and new ideas," Flemming wrote.

Now, Flemming and other members of the Glendale Library Foundation are beginning a different sort of storytelling experience in preparation for the foundation's April 7 celebration of downtown Central Library's Reflect Space — the gallery of rotating exhibits depicting the stories and struggles experienced by Glendale's diverse communities.

With questions inspired by the National Conference for Community and Justice "Neighbor to Neighbor" program involving two groups of parents and teachers at Roosevelt Middle School nearly 20 years ago, representative community members have been recording short accounts of their families' journeys to Glendale.

At the April 7 celebration, guests will have the opportunity to record their own stories and help inaugurate the library's oral history project, envisioned as a repository for all our community's stories.

Every family has a history. Here's hoping people are ready to share their own and listen to others.

JOYLENE WAGNER is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.

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