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Giving back with the gift of reading

  • Laurenne McDonald with students at one of her reading sessions.

  • Laurenne McDonald. reads to a group of enthusiastic students.

  • Guardian Senior Reporter Royston Jones at Albury Sayles Primary School.

  • Alexia Coakley at Albury Sayles Primary School.

Guardian Staff Reporter

Published: Sep 18, 2017

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When a teacher from Stephen Dillet Primary School sent out an SOS via Facebook, pleading for books for her class, Laurenne McDonald, 34, answered the call.

This was the birth of the Volunteer Reading Project, a new movement that aims to provide students with reading books and reading sessions to help develop their literacy skills.

On September 14, 2016, Dezree Taylor posted, “Looking for story books to help. Old. New. Anything. We don’t have any story books at school. I refuse to allow these children to remain here. May you help me. Will pick up.”

The post garnered attention as expected, but when McDonald saw it, she said she was immediately shocked and knew she had to act.

“I thought she was exaggerating because you would just expect a school to have a library and books,” McDonald said.

“And so, I responded. I had a choice whether to click ‘like’ or comment and move on, or send her a message and see what’s going on.

“So I sent her a message to find out if I can come in and read to her class the following week.”

McDonald said upon entering the classroom, she met the eager faces of children waiting to hear her read, but no books were available, so she had to borrow one from a student.

It was at that moment that the realization of the extent of the situation sunk in, she said.

After a photo of her reading to the children circulated among her own Facebook friends, she started receiving numerous requests from others to also read to students.

“The project grew organically,” McDonald said.

“I only put a name on it because I realized how many people wanted to join.

“So by November, we were booked for the rest of the year and we were pre-booked all the way to February and so the demand was so great because so many people are interested in giving back.”

The project is now set to celebrate its first anniversary on September 19.

When asked why she didn’t pass the post over, like so many would have, McDonald said, “I don’t think ‘likes’ and emoticons generate change.

“I think change happens when we see that there is a problem and find out how we can help.”

Though she maintains a full-time job as a business development coordinator with a private company, McDonald said she makes time for the Volunteer Reading Project because she understands the importance of it.

“I think that when something is important to you, you make the time,” she said.

“Reading to a group of students for half an hour on your lunch break, for me means a lot.

“It’s meaningful to me because some of those students don’t have anyone to read to them at home.”

She recalled after one of her reading sessions, asking a student, “Do you read at home?”

When the student told her no, and she asked why, McDonald said the response broke her heart.

“The student said because no one in his house knows how to read,” she said.

“It touched my core.

“It also helped me understand how important it was for these students to see examples of people who care, people who love them and people who are willing to sit down and read a story to them.”

She also describe a visit she made to a local junior high school sometime last year, where the English literature teacher advised her that 34 students in the 7th grade class she read to, were reading at a grade four level or below.

She said she was so saddened by the thought that she went home and cried. She was resolved then, more than ever, that she needed to play her part.

But reading to a class full of students was nothing new for McDonald.

She noted that in 2008, the U.S. Embassy and the literacy unit often held reading programs at Woodcock Primary School. At that time, the embassy made an appeal for reading volunteers, and it was then that she began her work.

She said her passion for reading also grew from being raised by grandmothers who were teachers, one taught English literature and the other taught mathematics.

“It has been imbedded in me my entire life,” she said.

When the project started, it had only 29 students, but by the beginning of 2017, it had taken on additional classes, and reading sessions with almost 200 students were being held on a weekly basis.

By the end of the school year, the project had donated over 834 books to schools. In addition to this, each child of the nearly 200 children involved in the project was given a book to read over summer break.

Since the start of the project, more than 100 volunteers have gotten involved. Several prominent figures, including Mrs. Patricia Minnis and renowned Bahamian storyteller Derek Burrows, have participated in the project.

According to McDonald, the volunteers represent a diverse range of professions, including retired teachers, electricians, computer technicians, attorneys, bankers, journalists and more.

The project is supported mostly through the donation of books by volunteers.

McDonald credited her iPad with doing the remainder of the work, in terms of marketing.

When asked how she felt about the Volunteer Reading Project being perceived as a movement, she said, “I just look at it as people who care about children who want to read.”

Speaking to the future of the project, McDonald said, “I think we need to promote a culture of volunteerism in The Bahamas.

“When we look at our counterparts in the U.S and Canada, it’s the norm to go into classrooms and read to children.

“I see this going in the direction of creating awareness that it’s something that can be done, that people would not be afraid to ask for help, because that’s how it started.”

McDonald said though there have been requests for expansion of the project, she knows that it must grow at its own pace.

“I expect for us to continue going into schools and reading to children,” she said.

“But I also think we need to focus.

“I think that expansion is good under the right conditions.

“You don’t want to rush it.

“So I think it has to be strategic and also structured.”

McDonald encourages anyone interested in participating in the Volunteer Reading Project to reach out to her via Facebook for a chance to be a part of the change.

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