Wouldn’t you want to have someone hanging on to your every word for half an hour?
That’s how Ruth Camins describes the appeal of being a “reading buddy” for Bergen Reads, the literacy program of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. Bergen Reads sends volunteers — there are about 150 of them — into nine elementary schools in Hackensack and Teaneck to spend an hour a week reading with children who need help in learning to read.
Ms. Camins and her husband, Rubin, started volunteering as reading buddies several years ago. She had been a children’s librarian in the Oradell public library. But she stresses that you don’t have to be a trained professional to help the children learn how to read.
“All you have to do is like children and like to read,” she said. “The children love to read to somebody and with somebody.”
The volunteers work for an hour every week, splitting the time between two children. Each works with the same two children throughout the school year.
“Bergen Reads is the one-on-one time the children need because they don’t necessarily get it at home,” Ms. Camins said. “It’s sitting there while the child reads, saying ‘Do you understand that word?’ or ‘What a funny thing!’ It means so much to the children to sit down and read with somebody who cares. They have our whole attention for half an hour.
“The kids are great. They became our kids. We always brought them something for Christmas and when we went to California we brought them back something from the desert,” she said.
Although the program demands very little from volunteers, Ms. Camins said, its rewards are great. “It really is an hour of your time and the travelling once a week,” she said. “Most of us, particularly those who are retired, can spare that very easily.”
Ruth and Rubin Camins will be honored on Thursday, April 20, at a ceremony called Bonding Through Books, a celebration of Bergen Reads. It will take place at the Nellie K. Parker School in Hackensack and will feature community leaders from Hackensack and Teaneck as well as school principals, teachers, family members of the students, and volunteers and members of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the federation, which is organizing the event.
Dina Heerema teaches first grade at Hackensack’s Fanny M. Hillers Elementary School, where the Camins volunteer. Rubin Camin volunteered in her classroom, until he had to stop this year because of his health. “He has been nothing but a gift,” Ms. Heerema said. “He’s an amazing reader.”
Before taking aside his students for tutoring, “he would read a story he had chosen from the public library to my entire class and then talk with them about it.”
As a tutor to the individual students, his assignment was “to read them stories, help them understand the story, give them a love of reading.”
Ms. Heerema would pick students “who are struggling with comprehension, or hesitant about reading, or kind of a little afraid of it” and “because of how much he loves reading, I know he can help them overcome it.
First grade is crucial for students, she said. “If they don’t embrace reading in first grade, they’re not going to embrace it.” Rubin Camins “is an amazing person,” she added. “Just the way he reads brings the stories to life. He makes it so concrete for their students.”
“I love Bergen Reads. I love the fact that they offer that service to us as teachers and students. The fact they have people who care enough to volunteer their own time is amazing.”
So who should volunteer?
“If you love to read and you love to share your love of reading with children, do it!” she said. “If you don’t have that passion to see the little sparkle in a child’s eyes when they understand what they’ve read, or their mouth open wide when they listen to you read — if that does not give you Goosebumps or make you smile, don’t bother.”
Barbara Selman is co-chair of the Bonding Through Books program. She has been a Bergen Reads Reading Buddy for seven years. “I just keep coming back every year. I love it,” she said.
“The name of the event is ‘Bonding Through Books’ because that’s what it’s all about.
“I come home after my first session of each new school year and my husband says, ‘I know what you’re going to tell me: You have the greatest kids, the cutest kids, the sweetest kids.’
“I think every Bergen Reads volunteer will agree that we get back so much more than we give,” she said. “We meet with these children who for whatever reason are behind with their reading skills. For some of the children, it may just be because they come from Spanish-speaking homes and no one can help with their reading at home. For some, the reading skills aren’t bad but the vocabulary is not there. For others, who knows. They need help with their reading, and it’s holding them back on every subject.”
That’s where the students are when they start the year. As a volunteer, “you get to see the success as they are tested during the course of the year,” Ms. Selman said. “The teachers tell us those kids are seeing success.”
And there is the matter of bonding, and the other ways of helping it brings. “We are told in our training not to ask too many questions,” she said. “Don’t pry into their life. But these kids share a lot with their reading buddies.
“The teachers have a very full plate. It’s a room full of kids. When you have a one-on-one with the child, sometimes reading buddies notice something that helps.
“Some reading buddies have discovered there’s not enough food at home and the child needs to be on the special lunch program and given a breakfast at school. There are other reading buddies who discover that maybe part of the reading problem is that the child has a vision problem.”
Ms. Selman said that the connection between the children and their adult reading buddies goes both ways.
“Last week, I was invited to one of my kids’ dance performance at school,” she said. “I got to meet her family members. You find out the children go home and share as much about the reading buddies with their families as we do with our families. You feel you become a part of their lives and you want to give as much of a positive impact as you can. We have some former students who will say, ‘I’ll never forget my reading buddy in second grade, and I still remember what he said to me or what she taught me.’
“I don’t know of any reading buddy who has tried it once and didn’t come back year after year,” she said.
If you’re interested in volunteering, you don’t have to wait for the new school year to learn how to do it.
“Sometimes we will have a reading buddy who has to stop in the middle of the school year and we may need someone to fill in,” Ms. Selman said. “Or a teacher may find there’s another student who can use help.”
To volunteer, email Beth Figman, the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s director of volunteer resource services, at firstname.lastname@example.org, call her at (201) 820-3947, or go to www.jfnnj.org/bergenreads.
What: Bonding Through Books, a celebration of Bergen Reads
When: 7-9 p.m. on Thursday, April 20
Where: Nellie K. Parker Elementary School, 261 Maple Hill Drive, Hackensack