Bergen Reads celebrates its 10th anniversary
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Bergen Reads celebrates its 10th anniversary

Adult volunteers for Bergen Reads get as much from their experience as the children they help, says program co-chair Susan Liebeskind.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to give of yourself to the community,” said Liebeskind, one of 129 local men and women who spend an hour each week working with public school children in Teaneck and Hackensack.

The program – now in its 10th year – is a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey (the federation is scheduled to receive a name change Tuesday night).

Liebeskind described herself as a “floater,” working at six schools during her 10 years with the program.

Still, she said, “that is not the norm. Most people ask to return to the same school year after year.”

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From left are Sasha Rose and Samantha Rincon with Bergen Reads volunteer Susan Liebeskind. The girls attend the Whittier School in Teaneck. courtesy susan liebeskind

According to the program co-chair, Bergen Reads sends “reading buddies” to eight elementary schools. A volunteer spends 30 minutes a week with each of two children chosen by teachers from kindergarten to fourth grade. Most of the students are in first and second grades.

“The aim is to make the children see reading in a positive light,” she said. Many come from a home where English is not their first language, while some come from families where no one has time to read with them.

“Sometimes our volunteers bring in their own books to expose the kids to ones that are not in their homes or classrooms,” said Liebeskind. In other cases, children bring in books they are working on in class, or they are permitted by their teachers to bring in any book they would like to read.

While many volunteers are retired teachers, some are simply people who like children and have an hour a week to commit to the program, she said.

“I have no teaching experience. I’m doing something to ‘give back.’ I love watching them progress, particularly the first- and second-graders. In the beginning, you’re doing all the reading. At the end, they read to you.”

Before beginning, volunteers receive training from school staff, whether principals or reading specialists.

“The schools are thrilled,” said Liebeskind. “We’re asked back each year.” She noted that many of the teachers and volunteers have developed warm relationships.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to interact,” she said, recalling that after she visited Israel, a teacher invited her to talk to her class about the trip.

Liebeskind said that while involvement in the project is “really easy, involving a minimal amount of time, one of the goals is for the kids to have a consistent relationship with an adult in a positive way.” That can’t be done if volunteers travel a good deal or are snowbirds, she noted.

While Bergen Reads receives funds from the federation as well as grants from private institutions such as TD Bank Charitable Foundation and the Target Foundation, “we raise a lot of money on our own,” said Liebeskind. One fundraiser, “Centerpieces for Tzedaka,” provides book centerpieces created by a party planner for use at simchas.

“It started three or four years ago,” she said. “We bought used books, and a balloon party planner glued them together to make centerpieces. They look nice, and the money you pay to rent them supports Bergen Reads.”

Program co-chair Sandy Alpern called Bergen Reads “a wonderful, fabulous program, so beneficial to the children.”

Alpern, who volunteers at the Parker School in Hackensack, said, “Being a reading buddy is not the same as being a formal teacher.” Rather, “The goal is to foster the love of reading. Both the kids and the volunteers get so much satisfaction. You make an attachment.”

Alpern said that when the program began, “I was looking for something just like this. It’s just what I wanted. I was a children’s librarian and a preschool teacher. It’s like a dream.”

The program co-chair said that last year, one of her students, an 8-year-old second-grader, wrote that he loved her “more than he loved dinosaurs. And he really loves dinosaurs,” she said. “They learn things they wouldn’t have learned before. It’s like having a grandma.”

“People should volunteer because it is so satisfying, [particularly] if you love books and reading and want to share that feeling with kids who have no one to do it with one-on-one. If you have lots of love and time, it’s a worthwhile volunteer opportunity and a good representation of the Jewish community doing outreach in the secular community. You’re doing something valuable.”

At the end-of-year brunch, to be held on Tuesday, Bergen Reads volunteers will describe what the program has meant to them.

“It’s an open forum where people can talk about their experiences,” said Liebeskind. “We hear incredible stories.”

Volunteers will also be given certificates of appreciation, and those who have served for 10 years will receive special recognition.

For more information about Bergen Reads, call JCRC Director Joy Kurland at (201) 820-3946 or email JoyK@ujannj.org.

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