San Antonio Youth Literacy (SAYL) got into the Fiesta spirit on Sunday, April 17, by hosting their own Book Buddies Fiesta & Bookfair at the Barnes & Noble at Ingram Park Mall. Kids were invited to take part in a Fiesta-themed story time with current Reading Buddy volunteers, as well as demonstrations on making cascarónes and Fiesta flowers.
The SAYL Reading Buddy Program, which began in 1999, currently serves 68 elementary schools in the San Antonio area. The majority of these schools are located in San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD), but the program also serves two schools in Northside Independent School District (NISD), all Title I schools in NISD, and a few schools in other surrounding districts.
Reading Buddy volunteers visit their assigned schools once a week, working with each student for at least an hour. The ultimate goal is to promote literacy skills among elementary school-aged children and get them reading at their appropriate grade level.
“It is a commitment,” said Mary Flannigan, SAYL director of communications and partnerships, regarding the one hour a week required of volunteers for the entire school year. “They are with the same students week after week, so they are also a mentor in some ways.”
And this mentorship has proven effective. In the 2014-15 school year, the 1,228 students involved in the Reading Buddy program improved an average of four reading levels.
For the 2015-16 school year, there are 764 Reading Buddy volunteers working with approximately 1,350 students around San Antonio. Fortunately, SAYL does not seem to struggle to find willing volunteers. Many volunteers return for multiple years, giving the Reading Buddy Program a volunteer retention rate of 35-40%.
“One of our volunteers told me, ‘It is the best job I’ve ever had,’” Flannigan said. “Volunteers come from all over, which is awesome. And we have a really good relationship with corporations and faith-based organizations.” Even college students enrolled in classes with service-learning components become involved with the Reading Buddy Program.
Many Reading Buddy volunteers, like Rosa Maria Gonzalez, plan on returning for a second year of volunteering even before their first year is over.
Gonzalez started as a Reading Buddy in September 2015, working with two students at Margil Elementary School on the city’s Westside. When asked what she loves most about it, Gonzalez simply admitted to loving the connection with the kids. While one of her students is outgoing, the other is shy and somewhat withdrawn.
“I was a very shy person growing up,” Gonzalez said. “It does affect your self-esteem.”
Gonzalez heard about the SAYL Reading Buddy program from coworkers at San Antonio College, many of whom are also volunteers themselves. Upon retiring after 30 years as a counselor, Gonzalez decided she would volunteer with the program as well. Now she is a volunteer with both the Reading Buddy Program and the Book Buddies Initiative. She enjoys showing kids that reading can be fun and there are other fun outlets besides the internet, while increasing their confidence.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of books growing up,” Gonzalez said of her childhood in San Antonio’s Southside. “Going to the library was an outing.”
For anyone thinking about becoming a Reading Buddy but is not quite convinced, Gonzalez said that it does make a difference.
“It is about reading skills, but also about improving self-esteem with that extra boost, that extra little bit of attention,” she said.
Flannigan would also like to make the point that the one hour a week “can make a difference.” And while some may not believe they can help because they are not a teacher or a specialist, every volunteer is trained and every school has a site manager that regularly visits each school. “(The Reading Buddy volunteers) really foster the love of reading,” Flannigan said.
For Flannigan, who has been with SAYL since March 2008, the attraction to her current position was somewhat personal.
“I saw the opening and knew it was meant to be,” she said. “I had trouble reading as a child, and (programs like this) worked for me.”
While Reading Buddy volunteers like Gonzalez clearly love what they do, the students enjoy the interactions as well.
“Kids look forward to time with their Reading Buddy,” Flannigan said. “Even students who read at their grade level want a Reading Buddy.”
Due to funding, the Reading Buddy Program is currently at capacity with how much it can take on. If a school wants to be a part of the program, SAYL currently has a waiting list, with the main requirement being it must be a Title I school.
While the program runs on volunteers, SAYL would need to hire more staff if they were to expand to more schools in the area. Another program the organization offers that may add to a school’s desire to connect with SAYL is the Book Buddies Initiative, which was initially started by Jane Welch, who is herself a Reading Buddy Volunteer.
At the end of every school year, SAYL would give away books to all students involved in the Reading Buddy Program. “It was Jane who asked ‘What about the other students in the school who aren’t in the program?’” Flannigan said.
Now every student, pre-K through 5th grade, receives books at the end of the school year in what has now become more of a book fair.
The Reading Buddy Program used to extend into the summer, but according to Flannigan, “it wasn’t very successful.” SAYL now partners with Ella Austin Community Center and the Presa Community Center for Camp Read-Aloud, which this summer will run from June 27-August 1.
One day a week for six weeks, kids will be read a story, followed by fun activities and games. SAYL is currently looking for volunteers for anyone interested in reading and having fun with kids over the summer.
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Flannigan hopes that in the future SAYL will be able to host their own summer camp in their own facility, as well as move into more schools.
“Some schools are harder to reach than others,” she said. “We need additional funding in order to expand.”
If you are interested in volunteering with SAYL, or simply want to learn more about the organization, you can visit www.sayl.org, or call (210) 299-1533.
Top image: A Reading Buddy helps a young student read in the school library. Photo courtesy of San Antonio Youth Literacy.