GLENWOOD SPRINGS — “What do you mean you can’t read? You can read!” Isabel Kienast, an eighth-grade student at St. Stephen’s School, encourages Jimmy Herrera as he sounds out a few words and offers a big grin to acknowledge his accomplishment.
“It’s been really neat and rewarding to be able to help them read, and it opens our eyes to how we much we can help out people in the community,” Kienast says of a unique Book Club partnership between the eighth-grade class at St. Stephen’s and a group of Mountain Valley Developmental Services clients.
For six Mondays this fall, and continuing through the winter, the class is inviting developmentally disabled adults from MVDS to come to the school and read or be read to by the students.
Cheryl Cormier, a first-year language arts teacher at the school, said she got the idea after volunteering with Literacy Outreach over the summer as part of a book club project with MVDS.
“When I came here and saw that we had such a small class, I thought it would be a great service project to introduce to the students,” Cormier said of her class, which has just nine students, and all girls.
“One of the things we try to do is instill the importance of service in the community,” she said.
Each week, the students select a few, mostly child- and young-reader-level books to read to their guests.
“A lot of the men like sports and historical stories, and the women like to hear folk tales,” Cormier said. “Today, we’re reading some Christmas stories.
“Especially in this Christmas time, it’s good for the kids to think about giving and not just receiving, and how they can help others in this community,” she said.
Leslie Wareham, who works to arrange group outings for the MVDS clients, said the reading program with the St. Stephen’s students has been a blessing.
“We have some pretty avid readers who actually read more than I do,” Wareham said. “Some read pretty well, and others can sound out some of the words with a little help. Some just like to have the story read to them.”
Mostly, it’s a chance for people with developmental disabilities to get out and interact with people they don’t normally get to interact with, which is all part of helping them to learn independence, she said.
“I read most of the time,” said Shanyn Smith, one of the MVDS book club members. “You can learn quite a bit from different stories.”
She said she has also noticed that her fellow book club members have started to become better readers since the club began.
“Even though they can’t read a whole book, they’re learning pretty well,” Smith said.
Another of the St. Stephen’s students, Susana Perez, helps Janet Tillman sound out a word in one of the day’s stories — “in-struct-ed.”
“I’m learning to read, and I like the stories,” Tillman said.
Perez said she enjoys helping the MVDS clients learn new skills.
“It’s also helping me to get better at reading out loud, and it helps them to bond more with each other and with people in the community,” Perez said.
Kienast adds that it’s helping her to become a better person, too.
“I know it helps [the MVDS clients], because it gives them a connection to the community that they don’t always have a chance to experience,” Kienast said. “When I get in to high school I would like to find a job where I can have this kind of interaction.”
Cormier said that after the Christmas break, the class will begin sharing some poetry and biographies of inspirational people with their new book club friends.
“It not only gives them a chance to help others, it’s also a great way to work on their fluency and reading inflection,” Cormier said of her students.
“In volunteering, we believe we are giving of ourselves, however, in reality we are the ones receiving,” Cormier told one of her eighth-grade students, Savannah Kelley, who penned a story about the book club for the school newspaper.
“Every time I left our summer book club meeting, I was so struck by the essence of these beautiful people,” Cormier said in Kelley’s story. “They are filled with gratitude, joy and humility in spite of dealing with physical and mental impairments.”
In addition to the book club project, the St. Stephen’s students have been busy raising money to provide books to children in Third World countries. The students have also been writing letters to military service men and women who are serving abroad, and are working on other ways to support the military community.