Originally published in the Norfolk News

Article and photo by Jeff Tribe

It was supposed to be a simple photo-op. But outgoing Retired Teachers of Ontario District 12 Norfolk president Margaret Payne couldn’t restrain herself.

“The program works,” the retired principal interjected in the final set-up for the cheque presentation. “It’s truly wonderful.”

The cheque in question represented a $4,000 contribution from the organization’s Project Service to Others Committee to the Norfolk County component of the Strong Start to Reading program. Strong Start’s is a volunteer-delivered program targeting children at risk of falling behind their peers in reading skills, which are vital to all aspects of academic growth.

“If you can’t read, you can’t do math, you can’t do the other subjects. You can’t even work on a computer if you can’t read,” said Ruth Mills, Strong Start Program Co-ordinator for Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk. “Reading is a fundamental skill for everybody.”

Mills’ participation in the program follows a 38-year career as an educator, retiring as principal following experience with primary and special education students.

“I get how important this is,” she said.

Potential Strong Start participants are identified by teachers and must receive parental consent before proceeding. Foundational learning skills are emphasized in students aged five to seven, with English language support offered up to age 10. Repetitive games and activities teach children to recognize letters and identify the sounds letters make and how they are blended to make words. Volunteer Coaches receive four hours of training and work one-on-one with children for a half-hour on interactive game-based activities, weekly through a ten-week period.

Favouring face time over screen time is crucial, says Mills. Children are assessed at the beginning and conclusion of the program to monitor and assess progress.

The program began in the Waterloo region in 2001 and was piloted in eight schools in Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk during the 2008-2009 school year. It is currently offered in 78 schools in that region (with eight more being added) including 20 in Norfolk.

During the fall 2015 and spring 2016 rounds of programs in Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk, 1,266 students took part in Strong Start, supported by 871 volunteers who provided nearly 15,000 hours. Data indicates 94 per cent of participating children made significant to outstanding gains in literacy.

But those numbers don’t tell anything like the full story in terms of lowered frustration and enhanced self-esteem, confidence and results. “Because when children feel like they can do something, they are much more likely to do so,” said Mills.

She was at last week’s RTO AGM/luncheon not only to accept the cheque, but also encourage members to consider volunteering with Strong Start.

But one does not have to be a retired teacher to contribute, Mills emphasizes, the most important qualities being basic literacy skills and a desire to help out one’s community in a meaningful way.

“The more we can do for children in our communities, the better and stronger our communities are going to be,” she said.

Those seeking more information on the program are encouraged to visit strongstart.ca.

As for advice to parents, Mills emphasized reading’s pivotal nature to education and its importance to all children, both in and out of a school environment.

“The most important thing to do is read with them and let them see you read,” she said.