BUENA PARK : Storybook Beginning to Reading

It is the fifth book she has read in just over an hour, but 73-year-old Judy Walker doesn't complain. Her melodic voice rises and falls at just the right moment, captivating her young audience made up of first-graders Shelby Gibson and Patrick Miller.

She has probably already told the tale of Little Rabbit losing his tooth in the ice cream once today, but you could never tell.

"Little Rabbit lost his tooth in an ice cream cone," Walker says loudly to indicate something important is about to happen, as Shelby and Patrick lean forward intently.

Every Monday for the past month, the grandmother of seven has come to Buena Terra Elementary School to volunteer for BEAR, the "Be Excited About Reading" program. The program, which began in February, aims to introduce students to books. A core of seven volunteers, many of whom are senior citizens from Knott Avenue Christian Church, come to the school to read.

At a time when classrooms are bursting at the seams and parents have less free time to spend with their children, the BEAR volunteers perform an invaluable service.

"If parents work and have children sometimes they don't always have time to read to them," says Walker, a retired schoolteacher. The time spent together gives the children "a chance to talk about whatever is going on with them."

After hearing about the program in other school districts, Buena Terra Elementary decided to give the program a try. About 38 children in kindergarten through third grade are enrolled. They are handpicked by the teachers based upon their individual needs. Some have difficulty reading or are experiencing problems at home and need a little extra attention.

"We are trying to target children who, for whatever reason, aren't interested in reading," said Tamala Olsby, who helped get the program started. "It is also about relationship building."

Like a surrogate grandmother, Walker takes to her six students as if they were her own flesh and blood, remembering the kinds of things that only a doting grandma would. She remembers everything from one student's birthday to the name of another's pet turtle.

Two at a time, the students wander into the library looking for the familiar face sitting in a corner of the room that is decorated with stuffed bears, mice and rabbits. During their 30 minutes together, the senior volunteer and children share stories and ultimately form friendships.

Every session begins with an informal chat.

Five-year-old Matthew McMinn wants to talk about the cold he had over the weekend, sniffling on occasion for emphasis. "Ohhhhh," coos Walker sympathetically, "that is too bad."

Next, each child selects a story. Shelby Gibson, who recently lost his front teeth and proudly displays them when asked, picks the tale about the rabbit losing his teeth. His partner, Patrick Miller, who sticks his tongue through the gap in his own front teeth, was happy with his choice.

They exchange stories about the tooth fairy and speculate on why she is able to fly.

Walker injects her own thoughts about tooth loss: "When you get my age you pray that you don't lose them. Then you have to get false ones."

Because of the program's success, Olsby and other organizers say they plan to expand it to include upper grade levels.

Toward that end, they are looking for more volunteers. "It is a wonderful program," Olsby said. "There is nothing like grandma sitting and reading to you."

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