Turning readers into leaders

by | Jul 18, 2016 | Other News

Nancy Brickell (right) receives gift from a BEAR student at Birdneck Elementary.

Nancy Brickell (right) receives gift from a BEAR student at Birdneck Elementary.

The Simon Family JCC’s Be a Reader (BEAR) program was honored at the Virginia Beach City Public Schools 2016 Community Celebration in April. BEAR’s success continues to receive recognition and accolades for the impact the program has on the community. But the real reward comes from the volunteers and their dayto- day interactions with students.

“What do you know about children’s literacy and what are the needs in this area?” Betsy Kartokin asked three women back in 1999.

Those three women, Gail Flax, Ronnie Jane Konikoff and Frances Birshtein, along with Karotkin, researched and determined that a very minimal amount of money goes to children’s literacy on a national, state and city level.

The quartet points to that single question as the birth of the Be a Reader program, commonly referred to as BEAR, which has been improving the literacy levels of children in Tidewater for 17 years.

The program’s goal is to help at-risk children in public schools acquire the reading skills and love of learning that lead to personal happiness and success. Volunteers read one-on-one with a child once a week at elementary schools in Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach.

“We are exclusively in Title I Schools— and I say that because these children, for the most part, don’t have books at home,” says Flax, who has been volunteering since she helped establish the program.

BEAR gives the students five books each year to help stimulate their reading.

Volunteers and children read aloud and work on spelling, vocabulary and classroom reading assignments. But Flax says it’s not just about the schoolwork.

“The biggest benefit for the children is the relationships they develop with their mentor. That’s really what this program is all about,” says Flax. “When we started, we really focused on reading, and it’s still the focus, but it is just as much about the relationships that these children form with the adults who spend that one hour a week with them.”

“Nancy Brickell has been volunteering for five years. She always reads and does art with the kids. At the end of this school year, a student she was partnered with made her a turtle and gave it to her as a parting gift,” notes Flax.

“When these kids who have nothing do this, it makes you cry.”

Flax is owed a lot of credit for the program’s success. However, her job isn’t about recognition—it’s about the work, the volunteers and the kids.

“I am so proud to have done this work the past 17 years. It is all about the volunteers. I couldn’t do it without my volunteers. They are great!” says Flax.

Flax says she appreciates the spotlight and attention that the Birdneck district is receiving, but hopes to shine a light on the areas that could use more volunteers.

“Some schools struggle to just get five people,” she explains.

All schools in Tidewater could use more volunteers. Those interested in becoming a mentor and impacting a child’s life could assist at the following schools: Chesterfield, Granby, Larrymore, Lynnhaven, College Park and Birdneck elementary schools.

To sponsor this program or learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact the Simon Family JCC at 757-321-2338.

Gaby Grune