Diana Nelson Jones' Walkabout : Reading program binds teens to kids ripe to be mentored

Cars honked as children bounced signs in the air at the corner of Whitfield Street and Penn Avenue one recent morning in East Liberty. The signs read “Got books?” and “Honk if you read.”

Many of these children weren’t readers until they met a Reading Warrior.

Cierra Blye, of Lemington, is one such role model who, with about 75 adults, teens and children, formed a read-in flash mob in front of East Liberty Presbyterian Church. Ms. Blye, 18, has been a Reading Warrior since the summer after her junior year at Milliones University Prep, and in a few weeks she will pack off to Pitt-Greensburg to study psychology.

When I was talking to her, a little boy rushed up and practically leapt into her arms. She said he is one of the children she reads to regularly at Weil Elementary in the Hill District.

The Neighborhood Learning Alliance recruits 30 to 40 teenagers each summer, some of them returnees, and pays them a respectable stipend of $8 an hour to read to children in city-run summer camps that target children who need academic support. The Reading Warriors work six hours a day, four days a week and have training on Fridays. They also read to children in the same sites after school during the school year.

These sites include four schools -- Concord in Carrick, Weil in the Hill, Lincoln in Larimer and Faison in Homewood -- and the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp. The program is in its second year operating through a federal grant given to the state Department of Education. The funds dry up in September, but foundations and the county have offered support to continue it.

Like the children they read to, many of the Reading Warriors grew up struggling in school with a reluctance to read.

“I had help in after-school programs,” Ms. Blye said. Her teachers referred her to the Reading Warriors program, she said, “and I got hired.”

She beamed behind her sunglasses. “I used to like to read but in high school it kind of fell off. I like to read again. I’ve made relationships with these children, and sometimes, when we have a chance to play a game, a lot of them will say they’d rather have me read to them.” 

Amy Baumgardner, an elementary teacher in South Park, devotes summer and after-school hours to working with the Warriors, “training them to be reading specialists,” she said. “I love it. And it’s important.”

Stephen MacIsaac, executive director of the Neighborhood Learning Alliance, said he and “a whole bunch of other people got this started” as Wireless Neighborhoods in 2003 in response to the disparity in wireless opportunities between poor and affluent neighborhoods. He had worked at the Hill House Association in support programs for children, young parents and the elderly.

The Reading Warriors program is a layered thing of beauty: big kids get the experience of being looked up to; little kids get satisfaction of being read to -- I still remember that delicious experience. Most of these teenagers, even the boys, sit close to the children. They sometimes put an arm around the youngsters’ shoulders.

The children’s mouths are usually open and their eyes are lively. Their hands sometimes form shapes as their mentor reads. It’s as pretty as a sunrise.

“These children look at the young men and women and see people who look like them, reading to them, as role models,” Mr. MacIsaac said. “The teenagers are looked up to. When I hear little ones ask a Reading Warrior, ’Are we getting another book?’ I think, ’Yes!’“ he said, pumping his fist.“That’s what we want to hear.”

The alliance has expanded its warrior program to train teenagers to be Tech Warriors with a grant from Google. A Fitness Warrior program is also in the works.

“This has been the most rewarding work of my career,” Katy Frey, assistant director of Neighborhood Learning Alliance, wrote in an email. “I am really proud of these teens for providing a counter-narrative to the stories we normally hear about African-American youth growing up in poverty.”

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626.

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