Wendy Weissman, CRC assistant director
United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Be A Reader (BEAR) literacy program launched the 2016-2017 school year with an orientation breakfast meeting on Monday, Sept. 26. Gail Flax, program founder and longtime chair, spoke to a crowd of more than 40 volunteers and school captains, both new and returning, about BEAR’s history and the impact it has on children.
BEAR’s main goal is to help at-risk second grade students in Tidewater public schools acquire the reading skills they need for future success. Volunteers read one-on-one with a child each week at one of these participating schools: College Park Elementary, Lynnhaven Elementary and Birdneck Elementary in Virginia Beach; and Larrymore Elementary, Granby Elementary and Chesterfield Academy Elementary in Norfolk. While the program currently benefits more than 60 children, many more could be reached. “This is our Chai year, year 18, and we have lots of volunteers, but we are looking to grow,” says Flax.
One volunteer hour per week provides the children with more than just a dedicated time to read. The volunteers, referred to as mentors, become a constant in the children’s lives during the school year. Mai-Ellen Hecht, a BEAR captain for Granby Elementary, has volunteered with BEAR for the past 16 years. Although Hecht is a former educator, most of the mentors are not.
“You don’t have to have a teaching background,” says Hecht. While the volunteers do read with the children, they also provide them a sense of stability in what often times is an unstable living environment. “We interact with the children as if we’re interacting with our own family,” she says.
All Be A Reader schools are considered Title 1, which means that a large percentage of the students come from low-income families. The schools with the Title 1 status receive financial assistance to ensure that the children meet state academic standards. BEAR provides the students with five books for their at-home library, school supplies and a commitment of one hour per week throughout the school year.
The more volunteers the program has, the more children can be helped. “The mentors and kids both look forward to BEAR each week,” says Flax, “and we always have a student to match to a volunteer.”
Flax continuously strives to expand the program, both within the existing schools as well as into new schools. Opportunities to get involved with BEAR, include committing time as a volunteer, purchasing school supplies or making a donation to the BEAR program where all funds are used to purchase books, school supplies and workbooks for students.
UJFT has established an Amazon shopping list where school supplies may be purchased, or the supplies may be purchased locally and dropped off at the Simon Family JCC front desk, with a note indicating they are for BEAR. Please also include your contact information.
For more information on BEAR, including ways to get involved, contact Wendy Weissman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 757-965-6107.