Originally published in Brant News

By Brian Shypula

A volunteer-based program that helps youngsters grasp the fundamentals of reading is ready to turn a new page in Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk.

A $66,600 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation has enabled Strong Start Brant to buy new learning materials to greatly expand the Letters, Sounds and Words program, which is currently offered in 32 schools across the Grand Erie and Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk Catholic boards.

“As far as the rollout, my goal is to have 20 new programs next year,” said program co-ordinator Lori Henderson.

Strong Start is rooted in the belief that literacy is everybody’s business.

Henderson, a retired elementary school principal in Brantford, says research indicates that if children do not read at an acceptable level by the end of Grade 3 they are at risk of difficulties throughout the rest of their time in school.

That’s where Strong Start comes in. The program provides extra support to children in senior kindergarten to Grade 2 – ages five to seven – who are struggling to read.

“This is a program that focuses on identifying the letters of the alphabet, being able to match the letters with the sounds that they make, developing a vocabulary of sight words and then learning to blend sounds practically to be able to unlock unfamiliar words,” Henderson said.

The youngsters work one-on-one with specially trained volunteers once a week outside the classroom for 10 weeks.

Grade 1 pupil Lucas Lock smiled and playfully slapped hands after winning a board game against Strong Start volunteer Joe Persia at Jean Vanier Catholic School during a recent session. The game involved identifying two words per stop on the board.

“That’s one of the bonuses of the Strong Start program – you’ve got the kids doing things that aren’t structured, school-type activities,” said Persia, who learned about the program through the Brantford Rotary Club and decided to volunteer during a year off from teaching.

He said it makes a real difference working one-on-one with the child versus standing up in front of a class.

“It’s amazing – the kids love it. I’ve seen improvement in the kids I have in my class,” said Grade 1 and Grade 2 teacher Dominique Martin, the Strong Start co-ordinator at Jean Vanier.

Jean Vanier has 10 children enrolled in Strong Start but that could be expanded with more volunteers.

Across both school boards in 2012-13, there were 483 children in the program, supported by 371 volunteers who donated 6,102 hours at schools.

Overall, 95 per cent of the children enrolled made significant, excellent or outstanding gains, according to assessment data at the conclusion of 2012-13. Significant is defined as a 51 to 150 per cent gain, excellent 151 to 300 per cent, and outstanding 301 per cent or more.

“One of the byproducts we’ve found is development of confidence,” Henderson said.

“It’s just amazing what they hold onto and remember from week to week, it’s only 30 minutes but it sticks with them,” said teacher Meghan Bage, the co-ordinator at Prince Charles Public School.

When Jane Henhawk saw how much her daughter Tierney, 7, benefitted from Strong Start, she knew she wanted to volunteer with the program at Prince Charles to give other kids the same boost.

“She was doing well with it and had come so far, and I’ve got time on my hands … I thought, ‘There’s got to be more kids …’”

Henhawk and Grade 1 pupil Abbey Gooder played Abbey’s favourite, the “fishing game.” Abbey would use her fishing pole to catch the corresponding word to the letter combination sound made by Henhawk.

“I have to read it – I know the words,” Abbey said.

Strong Start supplies all the materials and facilitates the volunteer training. The schools identify the children who would benefit from the program.

Strong Start got its start in 2001 in Waterloo Region through philanthropist Lyle Hallman. It expanded to the Brantford area in 2006.

Fundraising is essential to keep the registered charity going, as is a steady supply of dedicated volunteers.

Locally, 100 Women Who Care Brantford recently gave $11,200 and the Brant United Way granted $8,000 to support the volunteer training and development.

“We’ve been really well supported by the local service clubs as well,” Henderson said.

The Kiwanis Club of Brant sponsors Strong Start at two schools, Jean Vanier and Banbury Heights, and many club members volunteer with the program.

The Brantford Blast hockey club has also become a strong supporter of Strong Start. The team donated board space behind the visitor’s goal at the Brantford Civic Centre this season. Twice, all children in Strong Start were given free tickets to a game, while Henderson was given a chance to raise awareness and speak to fans about volunteer opportunities.

“The volunteers don’t need to have any previous experience with anything educational,” she said.

The next round of volunteer coach training will be in September and October. For more information about registration, visit the Strong Start website at www.strongstart.ca.

Photo credit Brant News