Kiwanian Rick Peterson is on track to pair volunteers with children in need of reading experience in the schools
The Reading Railroad has left the station in Storm Lake, and the destination is more involvement for community volunteers, and better reading skills for young children.
Rick Peterson, of the local Kiwanis Club, was attending a convention when he happened to notice a young woman wearing an eye-catching railroad-style pin.
She turned out to be the state governor for the Circle K Kiwanis program - the college-aged arm of the community service organization.
"She had come up with this 'Get on the Reading Railroad' idea and really pushed it as her pet project. It sounded like a neat thing to do, so I brought the idea back to Storm Lake, and when we called the schools, it turned out they were really eager to have volunteers read to the children," Peterson said.
Each week, Kiwanians are asked to sign up for slots to read to small groups of kids, starting with the kindergarten and first grade at South Elementary.
Eight to 10 volunteers have stepped forward so far, and Peterson hopes to invite others into the schools with him to show them how rewarding it can be.
"Our Young Children Priority One committee agreed to make this an ongoing effort in Storm Lake, and I'm pretty happy with the response so far. I really want to grow this," he said.
Storm Lake schools reading coordinator Michelle Huntress and the South teachers have been enthusiastic as well.
"The teachers say that all these kids need is practice reading. It doesn't matter if they are reading to an adult or an adult is reading to them," Peterson said.
"A huge percentage of families in this town are two incomes, with people having to work weird shifts, and there are less opportunities for parents and kids to read together. There are an awful lot of kids who really need additional reading practice."
From the Kiwanis perspective, the club is "always trying to come up with a good bang for the effort," Peterson says.
"For the little time it takes to read to a kid, this is a hell of a deal. I can head home for lunch and stop on the way and spend half an hour reading to eight or ten kids, and still get back to work by 1, feeling great. I might eat a little less, but that's probably a plus," he laughs.
If necessary, he said, he will "drag" others along to see how much fun it is.
"I give people one caution - you'll be in the grocery store or somewhere and kids will come running up to you yelling your name."
He admits to being stumped once so far - "I was reading a book called What's in a Wetland and ran into some kind of animal name I had never seen before, and I had to stop and sound it out with the kid. Now I'm curious and I'm going to look that animal up and see what the deal is with it."
The Kiwanians are working with two grade levels at South - there are dozens more public and parochial classrooms that could benefit from volunteer readers, Peterson feels.
"There is enough opportunity for everyone to do this, not just Kiwanians. It's easy and it's painless - if you want to show up, I bet the schools are going to find someone for you to read with," Peterson said, praising Huntress and the schools for the "galvanized" focus they have put on reading education programs in recent years.
"If you don't develop good reading skills from the beginning, I don't know how they can learn effectively later on," he said.
"Thirty minutes with a kid isn't a big commitment to make one or a couple of times a week, and they tell us it makes a huge difference."
Peterson has ordered a couple of hundred railroad pins that he hopes can help motivate the children and the Kiwanians to make their effort bigger and better.
At the same time, the local club is working to re-establish a Circle K program at Buena Vista University.
Although it is the oldest service organization on campus, after last year all the members had graduated without any underclassmen involved to carry on the tradition.
"We've been frustrated. We would really like to get this going again, but how do you get college kids to show up for an organizing meeting? I'm thinking we may use the Reading Railroad program as a project to get them involved," Peterson said.
Service learning may be as important as what they get in a classroom.
"You can't discover too soon the importance of helping to build your community. Volunteerism is just the frosting on the cake of a person's quality of life, and that's where we want to involve the college-age people fo Storm Lake again," he said.
There is a great deal of competition for the time of the college students - literally hundreds or organizations appealing to them.
"Still, I'm optimistic we will get Circle K going again. And we do have a pretty strong Key Club organization with the high school. I think they get a lot out of it. You just need a spark plug to really get it going every year."