After-school program helps kids close reading gaps

April 05, 2004|EMILY TOADVINE

Ben Carter, pastor of Christ the Head Missionary Church, carries a salt shaker and offers to sprinkle some in the shoes of the children in Bridges, an afterschool program at his church.

The children have just finished reading a book about basketball player Michael Jordan and how he added salt to his shoes, believing it would help him grow tall.

Carter moves about the room, waiting for the children to turn in slips of paper with the word "determination" written on it. The word was in the book, and learning its meaning and how to spell it is part of the day's activities.

"Oftentimes when reading when they come across words they don't know, we have a dictionary and we encourage them to look them up," says Natalie Oliver, executive administrator of the program that began full-time in January.


The program, which is funded for 17 children, meets 3-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursday at the church at 845 E. Main St. It's full name is BASE, which is an acronym for Bridges After School Enrichment Program.

Storytime with guest reader is a favorite part

Storytime with a guest reader is one of the favorite parts of the program. The children, mostly elementary school age, gather in a circle. Today, Carter gets the reading started and the book passes from child to child. In a stern voice, Carter tempered the circle time with warnings about behavior.

Oliver explains that in addition to helping the children improve reading skills and complete their homework, the program works on teaching the children to respect each other and have self-confidence.

"We're always getting them to think about what they do and the consequences," she says.

Every child's reading ability is assessed before they enter the program.

"Most are reading one grade or two below the grade they're in," Oliver says. "We have one who is not reading at all who is a sixth-grader."

To help the children with their studies, Oliver has recruited guest readers and high school students to help tutor.

"We try to get more one-on-one reading."

Guest readers have come from the Danville Police Department, R.R. Donnelley and Sons, the Women's Christian Fellowship and Kiwanis.

The idea for the program began because after working in the schools as an instructional assistant and a VISTA volunteer Oliver realized the needs some of the children have.

"I just believe every child can read and my heart goes out to the kids who struggle," she says.

Reading success can lead to later success

She says a struggle to read carries over to problems with writing. Success in these areas, on the other hand, determines what kind of jobs these children will be suited to as adults. Oliver knows first-hand what it's like to struggle after growing up poor with an alcoholic mother.

"If there was a program like this when I was coming up, my academics would have been a lot further," she says.

As a single parent, Oliver also knows that more male mentors are needed for the program.

"A lot of children in the program come from homes with a single mom," she says.

After seeing the need for this type of program, Oliver approached her church, which was built about seven years ago. The church already demonstrated a commitment to children by starting a daycare three years ago. The church was receptive to the idea of having the program headquartered there.

"It's really a vision our church had to do something educational and reach out to our kids," she says.

A trial run was held during the school systems' spring and fall breaks in 2003. Although she had no idea had the program would support itself, Oliver says she decided to step out on faith and give it a shot.

"It's really been a joy because some of these kids don't go home to someone reading to them," she says.

Parents encouraged to be active in program

Parents are encouraged to be active in the program. They will run the concession stand at an upcoming basketball tournament.

Oliver has taken on the responsibility for finding funding. The cost per child is $365. She also has traveled from school to school to recruit students who need the help. The program's 17 seats are financed through donations from various businesses and clubs, such as Kiwanis. At Danville High School, members of the National Honor Society have become volunteers.

One of the students, Myra Angel has been coming once a week for 10 weeks. Despite the demands of her own school work, it's a part of her week that Angel relishes.

"I came the first day and it was great. It was so much fun," says Angel, who is a junior.

The children in the program have benefited from Angel's participation in other ways than help with their math or reading. A member of the forensics team, she gave a performance in storytelling that sparked the children's own storytelling event.

Oliver also tries to stir up donations of books. The Boyle County Public Library has given some and the children can check out the library's offerings through twice a month bookmobile stops. Oliver says the bookmobile visits are a treat for the children.

"Some kids get really excited. They're never been on the bookmobile."

Hoping to expand it to summer

Because of the success of the program, Oliver hopes to expand it to summer. They want to offer the program in July.

"The biggest problem is bridging the gap of transportation to the program."

In addition to her expansion plans, Oliver knows she has her work cut out for her to keep the program running. But she receives satisfaction as children catch up academically.

As one of the children in the program, fourth-grader Malcolm Smith says he likes the help he receives with homework.

"So when I go to school my answers are right, so I can get an 'A.'"

Just like the young Michael Jordan, the program already has added a little salt to allow the children to grow academically.

Anyone wanting to be a guest reader or offer financial support or books to Bridges After School Enrichment Program at Christ the Head Missionary Church may call Natalie Oliver at (859) 936-7300 or e-mail

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