Last winter, St. Paul's Episcopal parish in Brainerd launched a weekly program aimed at improving children's reading skills. The program is called SPARC (pronounced spark), which is short for St. Paul's Afternoon Reading Club.
After a summer break, the club resumed this fall with renewed interest and rededicated effort.
"It's just been a phenomenal success. We're very excited about it. We have a lot of fun," said Alison Conlon Derby, director of Religious Education for the parish. "Reading is such a fundamental skill. Although it's not directly related to religion, it helps to be able to read to understand the word of God."
She said SPARC is "turning out to be even more about relationships than about reading skills -- relationships between kids, as well as with (the children and) the adult mentors. ... We've had some really good relationships develop. And (we've) had good feedback from parents about improved reading."
Adult volunteer Caren Bedard read a book with Michael Herbote, a third-grader at Garfield Elementary School in Brainerd, as part of the SPARC at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Brainerd.
The seeds for the club's formation came from a grant opportunity offered through the church's diocese. Derby proposed that St. Paul's implement the reading club to extend its Christian education and formation program. It would start within the church and reach into the community, which is what the diocese was earmarking the grant money for. And so the funding came.
"We started with kids from Whittier (Elementary School)," said Derby. It's the closest neighborhood school. "This year we have some kids from St. Francis (School). We have about 15 kids coming regularly this year. We'd like to have as many kids from the community as possible come."
Children living beyond walking distance of St. Paul's, located at 408 N. Seventh St., need their own transportation. "But if the kids are in our neighborhood, we'll walk down and accompany them to the church (and back home)," Derby said.
The St. Paul's Afternoon Reading Club is open to children from kindergarten through fifth grade. "We use picture books, chapter books, books they bring from home, reading oriented games and puzzles," Derby said.
Among the reading selections this week was a Scholastic Books condensed version of the book "Winter Days in the Big Woods," of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Big Woods." The ever popular Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine were also available on the book table. Three versions of another popular series included "I Spy Fantasy," "I Spy Mystery" and "I Spy Christmas books," each with photographs by Walter Wick and riddles by Jean Marzollo. One youngster and her adult reading mentor were using a Scrabble Junior game. Flashcards containing the letters of the alphabet and "beginning sight words," such as "made," "have" and "good," were other options for use as learning-to-read tools. A Hooked on Phonics kit, complete with a set of instructional cassette tapes, was also offered for use.
"The materials we get have primarily come from TyAnne Rezak, a media specialist at Whittier School," said Derby. "She's been very generous in providing us with reading every week."
Derby also brings books from her own collection. "I used to work for Scholastic Book Fairs," she said. "There are also teachers participating in the SPARC program. As volunteer adults who come and help the kids read, and providing materials. Other adults in the parish also do so. Volunteers pull things from their own collections as they get to know the kids and what they're reading and what level they're at.
"They (children club members) rarely miss unless they're absent or their parents can't pick them up," said Derby. "Every child that was here last year signed up again this year. We've really been having a great time with it."
"We have some kids who are special needs and some of them meet one-on-one (with an adult volunteer). Plus some of the older kids would rather be with just one adult. Other kids meet with an adult in groups of two or three," Derby said.
"The parish has really supported the program. The volunteers have really been faithful and have multiplied." Recruiting volunteers has not been a problem at all, Derby said.
St. Paul's Afternoon Reading Club meets from 3 to 4 p.m. every Wednesday in the church facilities. "We also provide a snack when they first get there," Derby said. The club's new year began in September, following summer vacation, and runs until November. Then it will start back up in January, after the holidays, and continue until the end of April. Call Alison Conlon Derby at 829-3834 for more information.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.