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Souper Seniors lend a hand with reading at Mville schools

The Marysville Souper Seniors lend a hand at Liberty Elementary School last week: from left are -
The Marysville Souper Seniors lend a hand at Liberty Elementary School last week: from left are
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MARYSVILLE Every morning a bunch of senior citizens gather in the cafeteria of Liberty Elementary School here, sitting at a table in the corner with some very special friends.
Each student at the downtown school is expected to read for about 20 minutes at home each night from Mondays through Thursdays, but some families just dont have the time, quiet space or discipline to do so. Thats where the Souper Seniors lend a hand.
When a kid comes to school and cant sign-off on their reading for the night before, a volunteer takes him or her aside during the morning breakfast session. They grab a book, sit down and read together for the 20 minutes and then the breakfast buddy can vouch for their progress. Literacy is the number one priority for the Marysville School District, as educators say reading is the foundation for all other skills to be built upon. Getting a good start is essential for all students and Liberty has the highest proportion of kids on free and reduced lunch. Thats how administrators let you know that they have lots of kids from hard-pressed families, but they are proud of the fact that the community is stepping in to fill a need.
The Souper Seniors have been visiting the school on Tenth Street for three years to lend a hand with reading. The one-on-one contact turns a chore into a chance to get kids off to a good start.
Jack Leatherman taught for 26 years in the Lake Stevens School District and now volunteers at Liberty several times each week.
I never saw that rapport; it didnt resemble what we have here, Leatherman said.
Many of the corps of volunteers are former teachers; some are retirees looking for something to do and to give back to the community. Founder Dick Petersen is a former teacher, insurance salesman and realtor who lives across the street from Tami Taylor, the reading facilitator for Liberty. He used to deliver soup to folks during the Great Depression as a kid, and thats how the group got the moniker. He pitched the idea to Taylor and for three years the group has been on a roll, helping kids during the morning and in the afternoon during one-on-one sessions.
Tami and Dick are neighbors so she couldnt say no, Leatherman laughed.
Taylor said the children really identify and bond with the seniors, and many need a role model in their life.
The reliability of this group is phenomenal, Taylor said. Dependability is what the building and the students need.
The elders work out of a conference room at knee-high tables, leaning over a child and helping them sound out the words and string them together to make a sentence. A quick check to see if the student understands what they are reading is made by asking the child about the material. Creativity is appreciated, but has to be kept in bounds.
I find that two or three of them want to put their own words in, explained Lillian Neff, who works with second-graders twice a week. If they go through it too easy I find something a little more challenging for them.
Volunteer Glenna Long needed a challenge herself; she was paired with really good readers when she first started, and asked for kids who needed help.
I would much rather do that, Long said.
Nearby Neff was working with McKenzie Lian as she read The Costume Party. Lian is a seven-year-old in the second-grade who reads to Neff each Friday. She likes the smaller atmosphere personal attention.
She does really good for a second-grader, Neff said.
Janelle McFalls is the reading coach at Liberty and she said the volunteers lend a hand in other areas, too, such as helping with vision screening early in the year.
They are very willing to help us with whatever we need, McFalls said. They are just great volunteers. It gave them a purpose.
She lauded Neff for her grandmotherly touch and ability to connect with kids.
Shes just a gem and she really takes her kids on like her own, McFalls said. Its a wonderful program.
Joan Watt is the principal at Liberty and cites several other programs where volunteers help out, such as the Soroptimists who have a pen pal organization with English language learners. She said the Souper Seniors have infected others with the bug; now even the building custodian sits down with kids and helps them read.
Its like having an extended family support, like the community is interested in the students and its intergenerational, Watt said. Its wonderful for the students to have contact with another generation.
The bond is palpable; if a senior comes in on Monday, Watt said their students will look for their specific mentor on that day.
Petersen wants to expand the program and said Marshall and Cascade elementary schools are the places that could use help. Expansion depends on how many more volunteers the seniors can attract; for more information or to volunteer, call Liberty Elementary reading facilitator Tami Taylor at 360-657-6877 or Given Kutz at 360-659-3376.

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