By Jill Keppeler
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — TOWN OF TONAWANDA — There are moments that Gillian Richardson will never forget.
A student who had struggled with reading, finally getting up the nerve to stand and recite a poem. Children gathered at the door of the LEAP Powerful Literacy Center, eager to enter and investigate the book collection. Getting a telephone call from a desperate parent and being able to help.
“It’s that sort of thing that most people don’t see, that our funders don’t see, that changes people’s lives,” Richardson, the executive director of the literacy group LEAP of WNY, said during a recent interview at the group’s Powerful Literacy Center and Children’s Library at the Sheridan-Parkside Community Center.
These are lean times for any small, mainly volunteer-run group, and LEAP has been no exception.
The group’s reading invention clinic had to move unexpectedly last summer from the Phillip Sheridan building to a new site on Sheridan Drive. Richardson had to shut off the Internet for both the sites and dramatically reduce the hours the center is open, down to two hours a day, two days a week.
“There was a time I could keep this open five days a week after school,” she said, looking around the book-lined walls of the Powerful Literacy Center. “Now I have to limit it ... and the kids are waiting at the door, saying, ‘Why can’t we come in?’ and ‘Why aren’t you open?’ I find that to be the most frustrating thing.”
Still, there has been good news. The group’s board of directors had actually voted to shut the program down at its last meeting, but a last-minute reprieve in the form of renewed United Way funding means that the board is expected to vote today to keep things going.
Accordingly, Richardson and LEAP are moving forward, seeking students and volunteer tutors for the upcoming academic tutoring program LEAP~ASAP, which provides help with writing, reading and homework for students in grades one to six. The free program runs from March 12 to May 9 and takes place at the Powerful Literacy Center.
LEAP~ASAP is geared toward the Sheridan-Parkside community and/or children who attend Holmes Elementary School, but is open to children from anywhere in Western New York. Volunteers work with students in small groups, about two children per tutor. There will be a training session for the tutor volunteers from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. March 7.
Many tutors have teaching experience, but it’s not needed to volunteer, Richardson said.
“I think people think, ‘Well, I don’t have any teaching experience,’ “ she said. “That’s not necessary. It’s even better for us when we get people from all walks of life. Businesspeople, lawyers ... they’ve been some of our best tutors. As long as they enjoy working with children.”
Patricia Schank of North Buffalo, a retired teacher, will be entering her third year of serving as a volunteer tutor with what she called “a wonderful program.”
“It certainly helps the students. The kids come in and they’re excited about coming,” she said. “When I first came in, I thought, ‘Oh they’ll be tired after being in school all day.’ But I think they like the attention and the one-on-one, more or less, type of instruction. And we make it fun.
“It’s a very fulfilling kind of experience, to see the growth and the interest that these students show.”
Nancy Bissell of Kenmore started working with LEAP~ASAP last year after 27 years experience as a special education teacher, a background she’s been able to tap into as a volunteer with the program.
“A lot of the kids are kids who are maybe not getting as much attention as they need at the schools, not as much one-on-one time,” she said. “When they come into the LEAP program, they really enjoy the one-on-one attention they’re getting. And the kids are great.”
While LEAP~ASAP only runs for a period of time in the spring and fall, Richardson pointed out that the center also presents a summer camp for children having difficulties with reading and writing.
“I want to make sure that every child who can benefit has a chance,” she said. “If a child is not reading on level by the third grade ... their graduation rate plummets. The earlier we can get them, the better. What we have to realize today is the need for literacy is ever-increasing.”TO TAKE PART • STUDENTS: Leap~ASAP is available for students in grades one through six from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. from March 12 through May 9. Children in grades one through three will attend Tuesdays and children in grades four to six will attend Thursdays. There are no sessions April 2 and 4. Registration will take place through March 5. The program is free. There is a $20 refundable deposit for students who do not attend Holmes Elementary School in the Ken-Ton school district. The deposit will be refunded at the end of the program when parents supply a copy of the student's report card. • VOLUNTEERS: Required tutor training will take place from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. March 7. No special skills are needed to tutor, but a time commitment is necessary. • WHERE: The program will take place at the LEAP Powerful Literacy Center & Children's Library, Sheridan-Parkside Community Center, Room 103, 169 Sheridan Parkside Drive, Town of Tonawanda. • CONTACT INFORMATION: To register for LEAP~ASAP and get more information on volunteering, email Gillian Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 873-0429. Volunteer applications can also be found online at www.leapofwny.org.