Seniors are invaluable volunteers in public school reading programs. As a reading specialist in a public school where 95% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch, I’ve had the good fortune to work with volunteers through United Way’s Schools of Hope program. The bond that forms between seniors and young students is amazing to see.

In economically disadvantaged homes, there often is limited access to books, parents are working long hours and do not have time to read with their children, and conditions in the home may be crowded, noisy, and not conducive to reading. When a senior volunteer comes in to school once a week to sit and read one-on-one with a student, the student is being given a special gift. The student gets a trusted adult’s full attention and reading support.

I’ve heard from our volunteers that the pleasure is all theirs! Our volunteers come from various walks of life, many are retired professionals, and they say it is refreshing and uplifting to work with young students and see their eagerness and exuberance for learning despite many challenges in their young lives.

Research shows that if a child isn’t a proficient reader by the end of third grade, it is very unlikely that he/she will graduate from high school and go on to higher education. Economically disadvantaged children are particularly at risk, because of the achievement gap between children of low-income and higher income families.

Much of this achievement gap is due to the phenomenon called “summer learning loss,” also referred to as “summer slide” or “summer setback.” Unlike in more well-to-do families, economically disadvantaged children often do not have enriching summer experiences such as trips to the library or bookstore, family trips to museums or historical sites, or travel vacations. These children come back to school in the fall having lost some of the learning gains of the previous year. If your community has any summer reading programs, this is an especially important time to volunteer.

If you decide to give volunteering a try, you’ll probably need to get a T.B. test and get fingerprinted. If you go through a sponsoring organization such as United Way or your local volunteer center, they will probably take care of all this at no cost to you. Some organizations have tutor training workshops, and will offer you a choice of placement in a particular school or grade of your choosing. In other communities, school districts or individual schools have their own volunteer programs set up and you can call the school district directly.

From what I’ve heard from our volunteers, they like going through a sponsoring agency. All the necessary paperwork, training, and placement is arranged and hassle-free, and there are sometimes ongoing meetings and training and a supportive community of volunteers. Schools like it too because they know that the volunteers are vetted, reliable, and knowledgeable about how to read with a student.

I want to encourage retirees who are looking for a rewarding volunteer experience to check into your local volunteer organizations such as United Way and volunteer to read with students in elementary schools. I think you will find it gratifying and you will be very appreciated by students, teachers, and parents.