For twenty years, Everybody Wins!, our featured community partner for the month of September, has been bringing the joy of reading to local elementary school students through a mentor-based literacy program. What started with reading sites in Barre City and Rutland has grown to a program in 21 communities in Vermont and one in New Hampshire, bringing books and reading to a wide range of schools and students. We spoke with Beth Wallace, Executive Director, about their invaluable work. The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.
How did Everybody Wins! get its start?
The first Everybody Wins! was founded in 1991 in New York City by Phyllis and Arthur Tannenbaum. Their idea was to get corporations in Manhattan involved in the community around them since most of their employees were commuting from outside the city. In 1995, Sen. Jim Jeffords and Sen. Paul Simon from Illinois, and their staffs helped to launch a program in DC in which they and their staffs mentored for many years. In 2000, Sen. Jeffords & staff members, including Lisa Christie from Norwich, started Everybody Wins! Vermont.
What was the original inspiration or motivation for having mentors read to children?
Connecting schools and citizens is good for everyone, particularly in Vermont, where our communities are small, and school funding is often an emotional and conflicted issue in local discussions.
More than 52% of children in the U.S., regardless of race or economic background, aren’t read to every day. And yet the research is unanimous: reading to children is the most important thing adults can do to help them learn to read, love to read, do well in school, and have good lives as adults. Reading well and reading for pleasure are both linked to academic success, finishing school, and doing well as an adult.
Children actually learn more in grammar, comprehension, and vocabulary from being read to than from reading themselves. They can absorb much more complicated ideas when being read to than when they are focused on the decoding tasks involved with learning to read. This helps them across the board academically, and also makes it easier for them to learn to read, as words and phrases become familiar because they have heard them many times.
Children who are mentored for an hour a week stay in school longer, do better in school, participate more in extracurricular activities, and volunteer more themselves as adults, than children from similar backgrounds who don’t have a mentor.
How many mentors do you currently have? How many children do they read to?
Last year we had 613 mentor pairs around the state, so about 613 adults reading to that many children. Some adults read to two children on different days, but each child has a one-on-one relationship with one mentor.
In central Vermont, we have sites in Barre City, Montpelier, Northfield, Twinfield, Waitsfield, and Waterbury. In those six schools, over 140 mentors read with children each week. And we are always looking for more mentors! We have a long waiting list of children in every school.
How do people become a mentor? Are there any special requirements or necessary background?
Anyone over 18 can apply to be an Everybody Wins! mentor. There’s an online application at our website. We carefully screen each potential mentor and talk with at least three references for each as well.
No background is needed! The primary job of a mentor is to make friends with a child and read them stories. If you like reading bedtime stories to your children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, or friends, you’d like being a reading mentor.
Do mentors receive special training?
They meet one-on-one with the coordinator for their school so the coordinator can get to know them and make a great match for them with a child they’ll really enjoy seeing each week. Then they have a group orientation with other mentors to talk about the purpose of the program, how it works, answer questions, get oriented to the school, and so on.
There is a site coordinator in each school while the mentors are there, so they always have support for any individual questions or trouble-shooting. But there doesn’t tend to be a lot of that. Many mentors say it’s their favorite lunchtime of the week.
What are the demographics of the children they read to?
Any child who wants a mentor and is willing to spend lunch and recess time once a week with their mentor is eligible for Everybody Wins! In some schools, we can provide a mentor for every child who wants to participate, and in those schools 90-95% of children in the eligible grade range choose to take part.
How are mentors matched with children?
Coordinators interview children and mentors one-on-one and make matches based on personality, interests, reading likes and dislikes, and other more intangible factors.
Who chooses the books that are read? How are the books chosen?
We provide a book cart full of books at various reading levels for each school, and the collection is rotated regularly by the coordinator using our stash of books at the office here in Montpelier, and based on what children and mentors are interested in. We encourage mentors and children to choose books together, with the children’s’ preferences being the significant factor. Sometimes it takes a few tries to find the book that is most interesting to a child.
What has been the reaction to your program from children? From teachers? From parents?
We survey parents, teachers, mentors, and mentees annually, and we have very high return rates. We produce a statewide overview of the response data, which is incredibly positive, but I think what tells the story is the comments.
Here are just a few, from over 2000 surveys returned in 2019.
Comments from children from our 2019 survey:
“What I liked about having a mentor is sharing stories and reading with each other.”
“Everything about Everybody Wins! is awesome. I love being in it.”
Comments from parents, 2019:
“My child’s mentor was the best! He is so great! It’s awesome for her to have a relationship with another male adult in the community.”
“I see that my child is more enthusiastic to attend school on Wednesdays due to Everybody Wins!”
Comments from teachers, 2019:
“This is such an amazing program that brings so much reading joy to our students!”
“They love it, look forward to it, and it builds their reading and communication skills.”
Comments from mentors, 2019:
“This is my favorite part of the week. I have really enjoyed spending time with my mentee each week! So happy this program exists.”
“Nothing can beat the HUGE smile that greets me every reading day!”
How can people support your work?
Honestly, we can always use more mentors. Right here in Montpelier, we have about 40 mentors, and we have space for another 10 or 15. In Northfield, we are building up a new program and could add 20 mentors to fill our site to capacity. In Barre City, Waterbury, Waitsfield, Twinfield, every school could add mentors. It only takes an hour or so once a week over lunchtime and mentors will find that it’s their favorite day of the week. This is such a low-lift, enjoyable program for the mentors, and it has a huge impact for children. Win-win-win, everybody wins!