Melissa Nelson recently reminded me that one in three children cannot read at grade level by third grade. Those children are missing out on enduring “The Long Winter” with Laura Ingalls or losing a coat and shoes in Mr. McGregor’s garden with Peter Rabbit. They may not even know if Sam’s friend ever tried green eggs and ham.

Not only are they missing so many grand adventures, the inability to read on grade level by third grade, “can impact graduation rates,” Melissa said.

Melissa is a regional program director for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast, and a key player in Charlotte County Reads. In collaboration with the SKY Family YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs of Charlotte County and Charlotte County Public Schools, this United Way of Charlotte County funded program sets children up for academic success by first achieving reading success.

Much like that family recipe that has been kept confidential for generations, the recipe for academic success has a secret ingredient. The magic lies in having a trusted mentor share their love of reading with a child.

Charlotte County Reads identifies children in the Charlotte County Public School system from kindergarten through third grade who could benefit from additional reading support. Each student is referred to a quality after-school program at the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club where they are surrounded by character-building curriculum and academic support. Big Brothers Big Sisters works to find the ideal mentor to be paired with the student.

Mentors spend an hour with the student in the after-school setting. This option requires the mentor to wear a mask and social distance, but both mentor and student will have copies of the book they are reading, making it easy to take turns.

Virtual mentoring is another option. Mentors can use any technology they are comfortable with for their weekly hour with their student. For example, electronic copies of books can be shared over Zoom through the screen share feature. A variety of virtual activity suggestions can be provided to mentors as well.

Children enrolled in Charlotte County Reads build confidence, enhance their communication and social skills, and grow to look forward to spending time reading with their mentor. Mentors can share their favorite written adventures with a child and watch him bloom into an enthusiastic reader.

United Way of Charlotte County allocates funding from local donors to support this impressive work. Our community’s financial support helps maintain continued funding for the program as well as provide training material for mentors and after-school scholarships for eligible families.

But even with the dollars, our recipe is incomplete without that secret ingredient.

Rick Warren once said, “Time is your most precious gift because you only have a set amount of it.” The volunteer time provided by Charlotte County Reads mentors multiplies the impact of the four partner agencies to the benefit of the student. Whether virtually or with 6 feet of separation, will you offer the precious gift of your time to impact the life of a child?

If you are ready to play a pivotal role in guiding a child toward achieving grade-level reading, please contact Melissa Nelson at mnelson@bbbssun.org.

For more information on Charlotte County Reads, go to www.unitedwayccfl.org/education, or call the United Way of Charlotte County at 941-627-3539. Mission: Mobilizing the power of our community to break the cycle of poverty.

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