Reading for Pleasure and Purpose
Dottie Wellcome didn’t read much as a child. She can’t remember seeing her parents sit down to read. Books weren’t a familiar fixture in their home.
But she remembers “Gone with the Wind.” She was in her 20s when she picked up the novel and let it carry her from cover to cover in three days. It’s the book that influenced the rest of her life, opening doors to the rewards that can rise from a printed page.
These days, she’s opening those doors for young readers. Twice a week, Wellcome, 67, drives from her home in Walterville to spend two hours reading with first graders in Springfield.
"It’s the greatest joy in my life,” she says. Wellcome is sitting at a student-sized desk on the stage at Two Rivers-Dos Rios Elementary School in Springfield where I have gone to meet her. She has just wrapped up one-on-one, 30-minute reading sessions with four individual students and she is sparkling with enthusiasm.
“I’m going to go to my grave doing this,” she insists. “I enjoy it.”
It is not a commitment made lightly. Wellcome has been at this for more than a dozen years, sharing her love of reading as a volunteer in a program established in Oregon in 1992.
SMART (Start Making a Reader Today) was created with the goal of boosting reading skills early in life in order to increase the odds of academic success for students who may not have experienced books at home.
Since then, the program been providing benefits for another population as well, delivering a sense of purpose and fulfillment to a lot of retirement-age adults.
“Our job is to instill the love of reading into the kids,” says Wellcome. “That is the goal. You start the year and they can’t read. By the end of the year, they are reading. You can’t buy satisfaction like that.”
In Lane County, retirement-age volunteers make up 60-70 percent of the SMART reader pool, says program manager Laurie McNichols. “Retired volunteers are what allow us to provide SMART to so many students in Lane County.”
Jim and Donna Parker insist that volunteers get as much from SMART as the kids. They don’t understand why more seniors aren’t taking advantage of the energizing effect of reading with youngsters.
“Volunteering for the SMART program is revitalizing for me,” says Jim Parker, 88. “It makes me feel like I am doing something worthwhile and having a effect on another person’s life.”
Examples come quickly to mind as he talks. The second grader assigned to read with him last year left an impact and an ice cream stick that can still raise a lump in his throat.
At their first reading session, he says, the student walked up to Parker and announced that she was a “dumb reader.” She refused to read, or attempt it, but listened intently as Parker read to her. She held her ground for seven more reading sessions, but delivered a surprise when they met for the eighth.
She was ready to read, she declared. The pair became co-readers, sharing books through the remainder of the year. At their final session she presented Parker with a gift she had made for him—a flat popsicle stick striped with colors.
“The colors are the rainbow,” she told him, “and I am no longer a dumb reader.”
"It was really something,” he says. “That gift I was given.”
The Parkers moved to this area to be near family when Jim retired from 40 years in private practice as a clinical psychologist in southern California. For the first years of retirement, Jim Parker filled free time with neighborhood association involvement and golfing with new friends. Donna jumped into a senior tutoring program organized through the former Oasis Lifelong Learning program. When the Oasis program ended both Parkers signed up as volunteers with SMART at Bertha Holt Elementary School in Eugene.
“I will do this as long as I am able to get up and go,” says Donna Parker, 83. “You walk out of the sessions feeling on top of the world. You really do. You feel like you are really helping make their day, or make their lives.”
And You grow too! That's the nice part.
The Parkers scoff at the concerns of friends who think they are too old to work with youngsters.
“I really think the greatest need is the one-on-one relationship and the experience with senior citizens,” says Donna Parker. Many of the students don’t have relationships with older people, Parker says. They don’t have grandmas and grandpas nearby.
“And you grow too,” she says. “That’s the nice part of it.”
A few months ago, I tore a column by the Drs. Oz & Roizen out of The Register-Guard. In it, the authors extolled the health benefits derived from a sense of purpose. Their column cited a flurry of studies connecting “a sense of meaning and direction, and a feeling that life is worth living” with reduced risk of heart disease, increased independence and lifespan, sharper mental strength and lower stress levels.
There’s no escaping the impact that a sense of purpose has on emotions and mood for me. I just feel better when I have a project and some structure in my days. But in retirement, when the structure of a regular job or the demands of family responsibilities change, finding that sense of purpose takes personal momentum. Transitions can be difficult.
Sue Brown knew she would need to find meaningful volunteer work when she retired after 35 years with the Bi-Mart Corporation.
“Volunteer work is being part of the community,” she says. “I wanted to be involved with the community in a way that used my communication and organizational skills.”
Brown, 59, went to work at Bi-Mart when she was 17. She moved up in the organization to become a product buyer, selecting toys, medical supplements, Christmas decorations, and more for neighborhood stores. When she retired four years ago, she was supervisor of buyers and sales at the corporate level.
A passion for reading and a love of children guided her search for volunteer opportunities after retirement. When she found the SMART program on the Internet (getsmart.org), she jumped in, signing on as a reader for children in a Head Start project.
“I was an avid reader growing up,” she says. “I always thought I wanted to be a teacher, but business just stuck.”
Now, Brown supervises the SMART program for second graders at Bertha Holt Elementary School. The position is basically an unpaid, part-time administrative job overseeing readers and students in the twice-a-week program. She fills in as a reader when needed.
“The joy for me is seeing our group—our volunteers and students—light up when they see each other,” she says. “I get to facilitate that. And I get the experience of watching them grow.”
No doubt, these mentoring connections have merit for students of any age, but Brown is guided these days by statistics that show children who are able to read for information by third grade have a higher rate of success as they advance in school.
“I felt so rewarded with pre-K, but I felt I could make more of a difference working with readers at first and second grades, she says. “I felt this is where I am needed. If they didn’t get this extra help now, as they head into the third grade…,” she pauses, leaving the risks unspoken.
“I hope I am conveying how heart-warming this is for me.”
It’s convincing—her passion and sense of purpose. I’d be tempted to join her if I weren’t finding all the fulfillment and focus I have time for in writing about the challenges, triumphs and transitions that accompany advancing years.
Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,
and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.