Editor’s note: This story updates the number of videos submitted by reading volunteers.
Editor’s note: At the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, we intentionally celebrate ordinary people who do extraordinary things. We are especially interested in our neighbors who are making a difference as we all deal with the effects of COVID-19. Please let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org and put “Community Heroes” in the subject line.
Like parents everywhere, Alicia Lewis wants to make sure her 3-year-old son Matthias continues to learn during the pandemic.
And she’s found one resource with Next Door’s “Read with Me” program, which has been forced to go virtual.
“Typically, this would take place in person in our classroom,” said Jackie Shanti, who oversees the distribution of books within Milwaukee’s central city as the Books for Kids program coordinator at Next Door, an early education provider. “But even though that is not an option anymore, we still want to stay connected with our kids and keep them engaged.”
The nonprofit Next Door serves thousands of Milwaukee children up to age 5. “Read with Me” grew out of the larger “Books for Kids” program, which after 30 years has distributed over 2 million books to teachers and Next Door families, Shanti said.
Even if kids can’t read, the program allows them to hear the cadence of another person’s speech, familiarize themselves with the tactile experience of reading a book and lets them expand their vocabulary at a critical time in their development, Shanti said.
“It’s a comforting, secure situation for our kids that builds vocabulary and exposes them to different rhythms of speech,” Shanti said. “These are real, fundamental skills our children need to have to be good readers.”
Before COVID-19, Next Door hosted 60 to 65 volunteers for its “Read with Me” program at its locations on North 29th Street and West Capitol Drive.
When Next Door halted in-person services in March due to COVID-19, it was no longer an option to have community members come in to read. But after volunteers continued to ask how they could stay involved, Next Door put the program online.
Now, volunteers can record themselves reading a book for families to enjoy at home. So far, the organization has received 62 videos from 42 readers. Parents can access the videos through Next Door’s website.
“The biggest worry for me was trying to figure out how to sit him down,” said Lewis of the ease of using the reading videos with her son. Lewis also teaches at Next Door. “It felt like it does in person.”
For volunteers like Peter Blenski, a librarian at Hartland Public Library who has been telling stories to children at libraries he’s worked at for over five years, the “Read with Me” program provides an opportunity to give back. Blenski, who has volunteered with “Read with Me” for over four years, was one of the first to post a video of himself reading “Penguin Problems” by Jory John and illustrated by Lane Smith.
“It’s an easy way to make an impact on someone’s life with very little commitment,” Blenski said. “I was struggling to find a way to give back that was meaningful both to the community and myself, but I’ve definitely found it here.”
Blenski said continuing the program virtually is just as much about maintaining some sense of regularity as it is about the books themselves.
“Beyond modelling good reading habits and showing that you can have fun with a book, it is important to have some level of consistency at a young age-especially in times like these where everything seems so up in the air,” he said.
How you can help
Though the “Read with Me” program is adapting well to its new virtual home, Shanti said it needs more multicultural books.
“We want our children to see themselves in our books,” she said. Over 90% of Next Door families are black, said Max Seigle, Next Door’s communications and marketing director.
If you have books you are looking to get rid of, Next Door always is taking donations for its library. She said the nonprofit also needs volunteers to post videos of themselves reading a book to contribute to the virtual “Read with Me” collection. If you’re interested, follow Next Door’s submission guidelines or email Max Seigle at email@example.com