Battle Creek

We Read: Volunteers needed to read to children or have children read to them in Battle Creek program

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Thelma Vaughn has been retired from teaching for 30 years, but she never really stopped teaching.
Sensing that the needs she saw as a teacher with the Battle Creek Public Schools remained, Vaughn began a program in 2003 at her home church, Second Missionary Baptist that focuses on providing additional support with reading and comprehension for the school district’s first through fifth-grade students.
“It always seemed to me while I was working that there was a missing piece to the puzzle to helping kids be successful in school and life and that was that at-home practice,” she says. “In school, they work on vocabulary and decoding words and reading stories. But they needed to have someone to read to. A lot of students when they left school for the day went home and mom and dad were either working or otherwise occupied. This was not 'Leave it to Beaver'. There was no one waiting for them with milk and cookies. I thought it would be a wonderful situation if after school we had a comfortable and laid-back scenario where kids could start reading.”
At the same time, the pastor of Second Missionary wanted to offer an afterschool program in the building for kids. He and a woman who had started a similar reading program in Seattle before moving back to Battle Creek wrote a grant to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation which awarded them $25,000 for the “We Read” program.
“At that time, we had students coming from eight different elementary schools, including Washington Elementary, which was across the street from the church,” Vaughn says. 
Anyone interested in volunteering should call the church at (269) 963-4640.
Students from Washington Elementary could walk to the program and the church also had a van to pick up students from the other schools.
Once at the church, students are greeted by volunteers who offer them a snack and a few minutes to talk about their day before diving into vocabulary and skills work, homework and reading. This is a routine that is strictly adhered to because “students operate better when they know what to expect,” Vaugh says. The 90 minutes they spend in this program at the church gives them the opportunity to read to someone or be read to.
“With a lot of the students we run into there isn’t anyone to do that when they get home. The connections they make are almost as valuable as the skills that they get,” Vaughn says. “They’ve been in a classroom all day with 30 or 40 other kids all vying for the teacher’s attention. The ones that are really trying to learn or are really quiet aren’t the ones the teacher is focusing on. I can say this from experience. To know when you leave school you can go to a reading program and Miss So and So is going to be waiting just for you, it makes them feel special.”
Pre-COVID, the program which operates from September through May annually, was serving 25 students Tuesday through Thursday with a team of about 40 volunteers who would come in on either of those three days.  When the program started up again in 2021, there were fewer volunteers which impacted the ability to serve more students.
“There was a big gap and coming back. Many of the tutors were veterans and had been with us for years, but they did not feel comfortable coming back from COVID. So, we’ve been operating with a skeleton crew of 14 tutors that included myself and my assistant,” Vaughn says.
Despite COVID and the fluctuating numbers in tutors throughout the history of the program, Vaughn says she has been able to find the $25,000 it takes annually to run the program. 
“Down through the years funding has come from the Battle Creek Community Foundation, the Miller Foundation, the United Way, and the WKKF,” she says. “There were years when we started the program and didn’t know if we had the funding or not. We would just plan to do it even if we didn’t know if we would have funding. But we’ve also managed to find the funds. God has been good.”
The initial grant “We Read” got from the WKKF back in 2003, provided funds to purchase books for the program. Vaughn says different organizations and retired teachers also have donated books.
The biggest need now is finding volunteers willing to read or be read to, Vaughn says.
“What is really at the core of what we need is people who are interested in helping kids. You don’t have to be a Rhoades Scholar and we only ask for 90 minutes of your time each week,” she says. “You just have to show up with listening ears and a little patience.”

Anyone interested in volunteering should call the church at (269) 963-4640.
“Everything in our society is written whether it be on a computer or a phone,” Vaughn says. “Helping students learn how to read is vital because at this point if an individual doesn’t have that skill of being able to read, understand and comprehend it’s like a person navigating the world blind. This program gives students an opportunity for an almost one-on-one connection for three days a week. A lot of our families are under so much stress now trying to make ends meet and staying off the phone long enough to talk to who they live with. Our time with them gives them opportunities they might not otherwise have.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.