Lakewood Ranch’s Terry Byce walked into Koral McNear’s second grade class Oct. 4 and was thrilled to see a new set of students.
For three years, Byce has volunteered for the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch’s Books for Kids program, and each year, he is impressed seeing the progress of students from the beginning of the school year to the end.
“You see the kids that are eager right now and then you see the kids that have their eyes on the ground looking away and don’t want to be called out,” he said. “Over time, you see everybody engaged. They get familiar with me and they enjoy it.”
The Books for Kids program is kicking off its ninth year with the School District of Manatee County. The program sends more than 100 volunteers into 10 schools in Manatee and Sarasota counties to read to more than 3,600 students on a monthly basis and distribute books to help children build personal libraries.
Since its inception, Books for Kids has distributed 132,200 books, with 28,800 being distributed in the 2022-2023 school year.
Ted Lindenberg, the director of Books for Kids, said the program is helping students discover a love for reading while also helping increase reading scores.
“We’re looking at 50% of the boys and girls in the state of Florida who are reading below grade level,” he said. “We know for a fact if we don’t reach these boys and girls by the end of the third grade, there is a good likelihood they will continue to have problems in reading, which will affect our society.”
On top of its Books for Kids program, the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch has its Books for Kids Kindergarten program, which is expanding this school year.
Last year, volunteers went to Ballard, Oneco and Daughtrey elementary schools to provide one-on-one reading instruction to a kindergarten class at each school.
This year, volunteers will be in seven classes among the three schools. The program will go from working with 60 kindergartners to 140.
“My objective is to get to as many children and as many classes as possible,” Lindenberg said. “This program is truly unbelievable. It’s an opportunity to help these young children. They’re just entering school for the first time, and we’re giving them this individualized assistance.”
The Rotary Club also has a mentor program that was started during the COVID-19 pandemic. Volunteers meet one-on-one with elementary students at a local library to mentor and assist them on a weekly basis.
Whether in the Books for Kids program, Books for Kids Kindergarten or the mentor program, volunteers are helping students with reading comprehension, listening comprehension, critical thinking, character development and more.
Sheila Halpin, the director of early learning education for the School District of Manatee County, is thrilled to see the expansion of the kindergarten program.
“The teachers that were participating in it were so overwhelmed by the progress they were seeing their students make, the social progress, the academic progress, the vocabulary progress,” she said. “It’s so exciting to see the joy on the volunteers’ faces. We like to call them literacy mentors because they’re trained to go into our classrooms. It’s very strategic on how they’re trained and the interactions they have with the students.”
Halpin said the Books for Kids programs are a strategic way of supporting the hard work teachers are doing every day. The programs are aligned with the district’s curriculum and state standards and benchmarks. The district also approves each of the books distributed to students.
The Rotary Club always is looking for more volunteers so it can continue to expand its Books for Kids programs. People do not have to be a member of the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch in order to volunteer for the programs.
Meet some of the Books for Kids volunteers:
Keusters has volunteered for two years for the Books for Kids program.
He decided to volunteer after hearing statistics about the importance of learning to read, including that one in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time.
Keusters remembers his first time volunteering in the classroom in 2017. He wasn’t sure about his ability to engage the students, but he had just the trick to break the ice with the kids.
He brought a joke book with him and started reading jokes to them before reading the book for the month.
It wasn’t long before the children were asking Keusters if they could pick and read the jokes aloud.
“They were scrambling with their hands raised to read to the class,” he said. “It was a win-win. They not only got to read, but they got to stand up in front of the crowd and read to them.”
It’s the eagerness he sees in students to answer questions and participate that keeps Keusters volunteering for the program.
Byce has been volunteering for the program for three years.
“Books for Kids is really if you want to make a difference and you want to see the satisfaction in the eyes of someone, this is what you volunteer for,” he said.
Byce helps with labeling the books that are distributed, delivering the books and reading to a second grade class at Tillman Elementary once per month.
“It’s something when you see the enjoyment in their eyes, and the staff really appreciate that as well,” he said. “I like meeting the kids, reading to them and seeing the feedback from them. The labeling and delivering is all part of the process, but where the rubber meets the road is when you actually read the books.”
Being back in an elementary classroom reminds Byce of his days as a second grader.
“It was probably the last time I was able to sit on the floor cross legged,” he said with a laugh.
Berlow is a founding member of Books for Kids and has loved seeing the appreciation the students have for receiving a book each month as well as having an adult come into the classroom to spend time reading and discussing books with them.
“I love seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces because when I walk in the classroom, they know I am there to spend time with them and to give each child a book of their own to take home,” she said.
Berlow said if students see her outside the school, they are quick to recognize her and give her a hug.
She recalled one day she and her husband, Michael Berlow, were walking down the beach and two students recognized them.
“The two kids came and dive bombed us, hugging us,” she said. “Their parents were mortified because they didn’t know who we were, so I had to explain who we were and the parents were so appreciative of what we do.”
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.