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Meet the Reading Buddies: Library Program Pairs Teens & Kids to Improve Literacy

When the time came for 15-year-old Emma Taher to start working on her school’s required service hours, she knew exactly where she wanted to volunteer – her local Library.

Emma lives near East New Orleans Regional Library and enjoys her frequent visits there. Already comfortable in the setting, working at the Library seemed like a no-brainer for the sophomore. So, Emma inquired about potential volunteering options and learned about a summer program called Reading Buddies.

The program pairs teen volunteers with young children to read and play early literacy activities with. At first, Emma was skeptical. Though she loves books and reading independently, she was worried she wouldn’t be able to communicate with the kids. But, Emma found her stride and quickly became a Reading Buddies regular.

“My favorite part about volunteering with Reading Buddies is reading books about topics that the kids really enjoy,” Emma said. “It’s super nice getting to see them being interested in the books we read, and it’s awesome for them to be able to read about things they enjoy. I hope those experiences have given them a stronger connection to reading in general.”

In addition to “helping spread the joy” of reading to her younger peers, Emma said the experience helped her grow as a person.

“It helped me improve my interactions with people of all ages,” she said “I got to interact with the other teen volunteers, as well as children and the staff helping the volunteers. It was very beneficial for me to be able to talk to more people every week, and I think it’s actually made me a more social and less awkward person.”

For Emma, being at the Library enhanced that experience, because she was able to work in a space that she already felt welcome, safe, and seen.

“The people who work there are all very kind and I was very happy to be around them while volunteering,” she said. “I check out a lot of books from the Library, and I like participating in the little craft days that the Library holds, if I’m not busy. Recently, I’ve been more busy with school, but I would like to come by more often and make some fun crafts when I’m free because I really do enjoy them.”

In addition to reading and spending time at the Library, Emma enjoys drawing and making art. The book she enjoyed most as a Reading Buddies volunteer was a nature book about frogs.

“It was actually really interesting. Normally I’m not too interested in nonfiction books, but I think the children’s book art style helped to capture my attention and keep me intrigued,” Emma said.

While Emma doesn’t have one favorite book, she said she loves reading fiction, particularly novels that take her to exotic places. 

“One of my favorite books is “Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata,” Emma said. “The characters in the book are very complex and interesting, and though the book was boring to some, I personally enjoyed it very much. I also tend to enjoy global literature, and this book comes from Japan, so it’s cool to see that different perspective.”

The Summer Reading Buddies session ended at the end of July, but the Library and 826 New Orleans are teaming up to offer a similar service this fall, starting in October. The program, called Reading Buddies x Wee Write, will meet every Wednesday evening from 4:30-6:30pm at East New Orleans Regional Library.

Like the summer series, the fall program will match teen volunteers in grades 8-12 with students in grades K-2 to read and investigate literacy together, according to Amy Wander, the Library’s head of Youth Programming. However, the fall series will also incorporate elements from 826 New Orleans’ LitUp! Initiative, which will bring writing into the program.

In addition to reading with an older mentor each week, the kids in the fall program will also create their own original books every session to take home with them, Wander said.

“Pairing younger kids to read with teens is great way to inspire reluctant readers by offering a positive reading role model,” Wander said. “By bringing the LitUp! curriculum into our Reading Buddies format, the kids will also get to expand their home libraries with books that they made with their own imagination, which we hope will get them even more excited to read. It’s a pretty great concept and we can’t wait to see it in action.”

Brittany Thierry, 826 New Orleans’ Early Childhood Education Program Manager, said working with the Library directly aligns with the LitUp! mission to bring the joy of writing to youth across the city.

“LitUp! is 826 New Orleans’ suite of early education programming that aims to engage young learners with literacy and storytelling skills, nurture their voices, develop their reading and writing skills, and promote a lifetime of academic and professional success,” Thierry said. “We are thrilled to bring our Wee Write reading, writing, and bookmaking curriculum into the New Orleans Public Library’s peer-to-peer Reading Buddies program, with the goal of passing a love of reading and writing to the next generation.”

The Reading Buddies x Wee Write fall series kicks off with a meet and greet between this session’s little buddies and teen volunteers on October 4 at East New Orleans Regional Library. 

Parents interested in having their kindergartener, 1st, or 2nd grader participate in the Reading Buddies program should sign their kids up by Monday, Oct. 2. Volunteer registration also closes on Oct. 2. Buddies and volunteers must both fill out a registration form.

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