Fox Chapel volunteer recognized by national literacy nonprofit

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A Fox Chapel resident has been recognized for her efforts to promote literacy for area students.

JoEllen Leech was named Volunteer of the Year by Reading is Fundamental, the largest children's literacy nonprofit in the country, for her work.

Ms. Leech, 60, has worked with RIF Pittsburgh since 2010 and serves as volunteer coordinator for Everybody Wins!, a literacy mentoring program.

RIF announced Friday that Ms. Leech and two others won the 2014 Anne Hazard Richardson RIF Volunteer of the Year Award. Winners will be recognized April 24 at a gala in Washington, D.C.

RIF provides books and literacy resources to economically disadvantaged students around the country who might not have the opportunity to read at home.

Before joining RIF, Ms. Leech was vice president of corporate affairs for Mellon Financial Corp. and later served as a consultant for the company while her three children were young. When her kids left for college, she looked to use her experience in market research at a nonprofit.

She joined RIF Pittsburgh, first working to restructure the Storymobile program, a mobile lending library, and later with Everybody Wins!. The program matches volunteers with second- and third-graders during weekly lunchtime meetings.

"It's hard to understate the importance of children learning to read," she said.

As volunteer coordinator for Everybody Wins!, Ms. Leech recruits volunteers and matches them with about 220 students in four area schools to create consistent, positive relationships and foster a love of reading. She also has her own mentee, a second-grader at Pittsburgh Weil in the Hill District who she meets with every Thursday.

"We're helping students want to read, help them get the motivation and spark," Ms. Leech said.

With the goal of creating lifelong readers, Ms. Leech said she sees the effects of the program firsthand.

"Each week when I walk into the school, I have kids running to me asking, 'Is it reading day?' " she said. "Their faces light up, so excited to see their mentors."

Ms. Leech calls the award "a great honor," but a big surprise.

"She's become a crucial part of our team," said Florri Ladov, executive director for RIF Pittsburgh. "She's far from the typical volunteer."

She called Ms. Leech "a natural fit" for the award, calling her "a full-time volunteer."

"We joke that she's an angel dropped from above," she said.

Pittsburgh has one of the largest RIF programs in the country in terms of programming and resources offered, Ms. Ladov said, but the national recognition is the first of its kind for the area. She said the award and gala further show appreciation for Ms. Leech's commitment to Pittsburgh's children.

"She is one of those people we thank every day but can't thank enough," Ms. Ladov said.

Lauren Lindstrom: or 412-263-1964.

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