You can always tell when it’s Reading Friend time at Highland Elementary School.
“It’s like ants. People are everywhere,” said the Rev. Griff Martin, co-pastor of University Baptist Church.
For 15 years, his church has served the school through its ministry To Highland With Love, which provides more than 10,000 volunteer hours at the school each year.
It all started with one woman, and she was not even a member of the church.
In 1998, Alma Newsom, a longtime tutor with Volunteers In Public Schools, moved to the St. James Place retirement community. Because she wanted to continue her volunteer work, she called the VIPS office for the name of a nearby school.
On her first visit to Highland Elementary, she was overwhelmed by the need. As she drove home, she passed University Baptist.
“She thought, this church is Highland’s neighbor. Maybe they can help,” said Carolyn Cavanaugh, Reading Friend program coordinator since 2000.
The church sent six representatives, who returned from the school with a very long list of needs.
“The response was amazing,” Cavanaugh said, “and miracle workers came forth and were willing to do their part, and do it well.”
The church created the Highland Council, now chaired by Patty Nolan, to coordinate To Highland With Love. The Reading Friend program is part of To Highland With Love and a Volunteers in Public Schools community partner.
“A good portion of the church has served as a Reading Friend or worked with To Highland With Love. It’s something the church is very proud of,” Martin said.
Over the years, To Highland With Love has accomplished miracles at Highland, the oldest continuously operating school in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Sam Rogers worked with the school computers. Gail Wager taught music one day a week for 13 years to every child in the school. And through the work of Charlotte Cantwell and others, the school cafeteria was air-conditioned.
The Reading Friend program has spread by word of mouth to the whole community. Now neighbors from other churches, sorority members, LSU classes and representatives of other service organizations participate.
“Volunteers in the church are assigned to every teacher and staff member at the school,” Cavanaugh said. “They write notes to them, do special things for them and pray for them.”
Every child at the school has a Reading Friend he or she sees once a week.
“We feel that it’s a broadening experience for the children,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s good for every single child. It’s not a stigma.”
Reading Friends come all during the day. “Everybody is on a different schedule,” she said.
Lois Holloway learned about Reading Friends from an organization of retired teachers she joined after moving to Baton Rouge. Her home in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. This is her second year as a Reading Friend to Samiya Charles, 7.
“I love this school,” Holloway said. “The children are well behaved. They know how to walk down the halls. They use their indoor voices in the building.”
Holloway takes a personal interest in Samiya, and if she takes a little gift to her, she always has something for Samiya’s siblings.
Lisa Redmond, marketing coordinator for Giraphic Prints, started as a Reading Friend when she was a student at LSU. She’s now in her eighth year as a Reading Friend. Her student is Adrian Crandall, 10.
“Kids have influences from every spectrum,” Redmond said. “We can’t control that, but for 30 minutes every week, we can control that positive influence. Sometimes teachers are so busy controlling the classroom that they may not be able to give one-on-one time. We can guarantee this one-on-one time.”
For the third year, Martin is a Reading Friend to Jer’Vari Williams, 8, who is excited about moving to “chapter books” this year. He enjoys science and history, so Martin is careful to pick books he knows Jer’Vari will like.
If work at the church prevents Griff Martin from his time with Jer’Vari, Martin’s wife, Abby, steps in. When Griff Martin returned after Jer’Vari’s first meeting with his wife, Jer’Vari looked a little disappointed.
“I thought the pretty one was coming,” he said.
Cavanaugh’s student is Asia Anderson, 9. When she finished a book this summer, Cavanaugh mailed her another book.
“Your Reading Friend really helps you out when you have a problem in school or any problems,” Asia said. “They do not talk about your secrets with anybody. They are givers, not takers. They are nice, not mean. The are special to kids.”