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Children's Literacy Center Opens in Shelter

A group of Reston volunteers hopes to foster a love of learning and reading.

At a kick-off celebration for the new children's literacy center at the Embry Rucker Community Shelter last Monday night in Reston, one of the shelter's residents, a homeless mother, raised her hand to ask a question during a break from singing songs and eating ice cream.

"So what is this literacy center, anyway?" she asked.

Ann Simmons, one of a group of Reston women volunteers who has been working to set up the shelter's new "Kids Club" literacy center, responded.

"It's a way we can help children develop language and reading skills," answered Simmons, a retired Fairfax County Public Schools reading specialist. "I'm always anxious that children learn to love reading."

The mother, bouncing her child in her lap as she sat on a sofa in the shelter, said the donated assortment of books and educational toys is just what the shelter's young residents need.

"These kids really need that," said the mother, whose identity is being withheld. "They don't have nothing to do here. They just run around and get in trouble."

FOR THE PAST two months volunteers from the Giving Circle of HOPE, a philanthropic organization formed by Reston women last January, have been collecting children's books, toys and furniture to stock the "Kids' Club" literacy center.

Most of the literacy center's volunteers are current or former teachers or reading specialists from local schools.

"We're trying to get these kids to start reading," said Fredda Regan, a co-founder of the "Kids Club" and an instructional assistant at McNair Elementary in Herndon. "We want to make a difference in these kids' lives."

Though the Reston Regional Library is next door, children living at the shelter often do not enter the library because of the pure shock of homelessness or because they might have some apprehension about going to new places.

"We're coming to them," Regan said. "We're making ourselves and the books more available."

Twice a week, Giving Circle of HOPE volunteers work with the children, practicing reading and language skills. A volunteer speech therapist from the Giving Circle will also soon tutor children at the shelter.

THE BEANBAG chairs, benches, book shelves and colorful carpeting installed by the Giving Circle has given the family area of the Embry Rucker shelter a less institutional feel, said Marte Birnbaum, director of the shelter.

"It kind of mediates the effect of having to move around to strange places," Birnbaum said. "It makes this a little less of a traumatic experience."

But more than that, Birnbaum said, the "Kids Club" volunteers are teaching skills that can help break the children out of the cycle of poverty.

"Learning literacy is just crucial for these kids," Birnbaum said. "It's something that can help ensure something like this doesn't happen to them one day."

READING SKILLS can also help expand and develop attention spans, Simmons said, a particular problem among many children whose world has been turned upside down from poverty and homelessness.

Simmons said she hopes the "Kids Club" literacy and reading program can be broadened sometime soon to include older children and teenagers, perhaps incorporating academic tutoring or extra help for the child's homework.