By Darlene Donloe
Reading to Kids is not only an admirable thing to do, it’s also the name of a grassroots organization that is dedicated to inspiring underserved children with a love of reading, thereby enriching their lives and opportunities for success.
Reading to Kids began with a small group of volunteers, teachers and administrators who shared the dream of improving reading skills among the elementary school children of Los Angeles.
The seed was planted when the principal of Gratts Elementary School just west of downtown said one of the things teachers would like to do more of is read out loud, but, unfortunately, there was never enough time.
In May 1999, a program was developed at Gratts that would emphasize learning and reading in an interactive and fun environment. At the time it was called the Gratts Reading Club.
The success and growth of that reading club led to the formation of Reading to Kids later that year.
The success of Reading to Kids is due to the Reading Club format — reading aloud to children consistently.
From a start of only eight volunteers reading to 20 children at one school, Reading to Kids has grown to an average of 287 volunteers reading to an average of 554 children prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and an average of 79 volunteers reading to an average of 198 children during the pandemic at reading clubs that take place on the second Saturday of every month at eight Los Angeles elementary schools.
Since its beginnings, Reading to Kids has given 182,199 prize books to children who attend the reading clubs, and donated 33,843 hardcover books to school libraries, while its volunteers have spent 225,102 hours reading to kids.
Charlie Orchard, 55, has been the managing director of Reading to Kids since 2012. An admitted reading enthusiast, Orchard, who has been with the organization since 2004, was first a volunteer with the organization, along with his wife, whom he met at a book club.
“My wife was looking for a volunteer opportunity that we could do together when Reading to Kids popped up,” said Orchard, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Indiana University and a master’s in education from Cal Poly Pomona. “She continues to volunteer with us.”
Orchard describes Reading to Kids as “an organization that organizes volunteers who love to read to children and are discovering they love reading, too.”
He said Reading to Kids is different from similar organizations because of its approach and focus.
“A lot of others focus on the mechanics of reading with an eye toward students meeting or exceeding grade levels or developing techniques for the way they read,” Orchard said. “Our organization is focused more on the affective. We are trying to share the love of reading. Anyone who reads out loud to students feels that. Other programs measure reading skills. The kids don’t get time to just enjoy.”
Orchard added: “No matter what you’re reading, you’re going to discover something about the world, yourself or the history of the world.
“When you create an environment where books are enjoyable, then books move from being assigned to being sought out,” he said. “For a lot of children, books can end up being more of an assignment. We don’t want our program to feel like school.”
Reading to Kids wants children to discover the joy of reading.
The organization relies on its volunteers, considered the lifeline of the organization, to convey that sentiment.
Volunteers must be 18. They work together month after month to touch the lives of others and encourage children to become better readers.
Volunteer support from companies, school groups and other organizations is particularly essential to the success of the program.
The monthly reading clubs do not require a major commitment.Volunteers can choose to volunteer at a reading club whenever their schedules permit.
The ultimate goal of Reading to Kids is to inspire underserved children with a love of reading.
“We achieve that primarily by reading enthusiastically,” Orchard said. “Most people can relate to an experience of people being enthusiastic or not. The experience with the enthusiasts is a much more enjoyable experience.”
A former high school English teacher, Orchard, who left teaching high school so he could teach people how to teach online, said even then he “strove to be as effective as I could. With 37 teens in a room at a time, I chose to make it valuable.”
Each week for the last 22 years, Reading to Kids volunteers have read an appropriate book to children kindergarten through fifth grade. All of the books that are read are in English.
According to Orchard, no book has been read twice in the organization’s 22-year history.
“We have read 1,600 different titles,” he said.
For consistency, the reading clubs continue even through the summer.
“We have never missed a month,” Orchard said. “Well, March and April of 2020 we missed. The pandemic shut the schools down so, in May 2020, we went virtual.
“Unfortunately, we can’t take on any new volunteers right now because we are Zooming into children’s homes. We are only using the volunteers we’ve been working with over the years. But we will need more volunteers when the pandemic is over.”
Kids, parents, teachers and school libraries receive book donations at the end of the reading clubs. These are important donations, as 60% of low-income homes do not have age-appropriate reading materials for children.
Pre-pandemic, on the second Saturday of every month, children voluntarily gather for what Orchard said one child described as “a book party at school.”
The Saturday morning program is about 90 minutes long. Refreshments are served.
Volunteers arrive at 9 a.m. and are usually done by noon. The kids are paired with volunteers at 10 a.m. The kids then go off with volunteers in groups of five or 10 with two or three adults. During the 90-minute session, one book is read — sometimes twice. Only the volunteers read out loud, not the children.
“The books are chosen by the teachers at partner schools because they are the experts,” Orchard. “There are so many excellent children’s books. We buy the books from Amazon. We might buy 60-70 to give away. The children receive a different book than the one that was read that day.”
The books that are read aloud are always hard copies and are donated to the school afterward.
“We’ve given 33,843 books to school libraries since 1999,” Orchard said.
All of the participating schools are near downtown Los Angeles.
“They are in economically struggling areas of the city,” Orchard said. “They need it the most. Some of them could be struggling with reading test scores.”
Reading to Kids (readingtokids.org) is right in Orchard’s wheelhouse.
“I was always a reader as a kid,” he said. “I remember reading ‘Bambi.’ I cried.
“I read ‘The Thousand and One Nights,’ also known as the ‘Scheherazade Tales.’ I remember my aunt and uncle, who would only give me books as gifts, gave me a book that started, ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’
“Obviously, it was ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ That right there confused me. How could it be the best and the worst of times? Now, the only gifts me and my wife give are books.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.