Bergen Reads hopes to expand in new hands
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Bergen Reads hopes to expand in new hands

Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey passes literacy torch to Volunteer Center of Bergen County

Carol Fertig sits between two of her reading buddies.
Carol Fertig sits between two of her reading buddies.

The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey in Paramus is transferring its Bergen Reads program to the Volunteer Center of Bergen County in Hackensack.

The program brings adults into Teaneck and Hackensack elementary schools as “reading buddies.” This past school year, the program had 125 volunteers who worked with nearly 300 students.

Bergen Reads was created nearly 20 years ago, after Jewish activist and writer Leonard Fein formed the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy. The organization, which sparked Jewish federations across the country to start literacy programs like Bergen Reads, collapsed after Mr. Fein’s death in 2014.

“Bergen Reads has become a very valued program for the different schools and the children,” Laura Freeman, the federation’s director of marketing and communications, said. “But it takes a lot of work dealing with every school, and all the different reading buddies and training. Because of our resources, we have been able to keep the program going, but we have not been able to grow it.”

Nilene Evans Chase and her reading buddy at the Fairmount School in Hackensack.

“This is the type of program that can grow with the right resources,” and the Volunteer Center is better able to provide those resources, Beth Figman, the federation’s director of volunteer resources,  said. Ms. Figman oversaw Bergen Reads. Over the summer, she will be working to ensure that the program transfers smoothly to the Bergen Volunteer Center.

“Bergen Reads is a really nice model that is primed for growth and expansion,” Lynne Algrant, CEO of the Bergen Volunteer Center, said. “Other school districts and potential volunteers are knocking on the door.”

Ms. Algrant said that recruiting volunteers is a key part of her group’s activities. “We have an initiative called Redefining Retirement, which works closely with volunteers who want to give back and have meaningful volunteer experiences. We’ve placed over 100 volunteers in non-profits around the county. A lot of retirees say they would love to work with young children. We see Bergen Reads as an opportunity to bring that talent to an area that school officials are telling us is a need in our community.”

She said that Bergen Reads is perfect for volunteers who “are looking for something that allows them to dig a little deeper and see after a period of time the difference they made for someone else. It’s both empowering and humbling to be able to have the experience and know you made a difference.”

Roz Altman holds up a thank you note from her students.

Volunteers play a crucial role with the young readers, she said. “Many of them are on the cusp of being strong readers. They need that extra time on task, the confidence to persevere,” that they get from their reading buddies.

Tracy Limbardo of Haworth is co-chair of Bergen Reads, she is on the federation’s board, and she volunteers at the Lowell Elementary School in Teaneck. “I was becoming an empty nester,” Ms. Limbardo said. “My kids were going off to college. It was nice to engage with little ones again.

“You’re assigned the same two students for the whole school year, so you develop a rapport with the students, and with the teacher and reading specialist. I’ve been there for the past five years. I read there three days a week and work with six students. So many of the students benefit from the program that if you have a nice rapport, they’ll request that you come and read with other students as well.

“It’s very rewarding for the reading buddies like me. Most of the students are coming from where English is not the language of their home. They speak English very well, but there’s no one at home reading English with them. They embrace the one-on-one time with their reading buddy and the focus. Even when you leave the students in June, you see them in the hallways the following years. It’s nice to get a high five or a smile or a hug and know they’re succeeding and doing well. It’s a really wonderful program.”

Bergen Reads begins its programs in October, allowing students to settle into the new school year and teachers time to evaluate their students. While volunteers who were with the program last year will be transitioned automatically into working through the Bergen Volunteer Center, anyone who wants to join the program should get in touch with the center at BergenVolunteers.org. Bergen Volunteers also offers other volunteer opportunities, such as working with senior citizens and kids in foster care, as well as with other organizations, like Flat Rock Nature Center in Englewood and the Center for Hope and Safety in Hackensack.

“Area non-profits can list their needs in our database,” Ms. Algrant said.

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