Diana Mertz, a monthly volunteer at The Reading Connection, reads "Clara Caterpillar” to her group at the Ruby Tucker Center in Alexandria.
Photo by Shirley Ruhe
Diana Mertz opened the door to the Ruby Tucker Center on Tancil Court in Alexandria. The excited sound of children's voices fills every corner of the room where the weekly hour of reading is about to begin. A blur of purple plaid whirls over with a big smile and locks herself around Mertz's knees. This particular night is the 25th anniversary of The Reading Connection (TRC), which sponsors these programs in 13 sites across the metropolitan area. Ruby Tucker Center hosts children from 4-7 years old from the adjoining affordable housing complex. Some other TRC programs are held in shelters. Three teachers whose school was located close to a shelter started the program, and they were seeing at-risk kids in their classrooms realizing they had different needs.
The evening begins with a quiet-down time to calm children racing around the room. "What are the rules?" Mertz asks.
A small hand shoots up enthusiastically. "Listen," he proclaims.
"That's right," she responds. "Now what is next?"
Several hands vie for recognition. "Respect, a small voice blurts out."
"Yes, correct. Would you want to have someone talking while you were trying to listen to a story?" Toes are still wiggling but she has their attention.
Mertz explains, "The theme of the evening is butterflies." The stories begin with a reading of "Dinosaurs Roar, Butterflies Soar" to the group of about 15 children. Later they break into six small groups, each led by a volunteer. Mertz is immediately surrounded by several children competing for the coveted seat on her lap and surrounding her spot on the floor as she opens the first page of "Clara Caterpillar." One of the listeners braids Mertz's long blond hair as she turns the pages.
Mertz has been volunteering at this location once a month as well as another TRC site in D.C. since 2012. She said she was looking for a way to get involved in the community. Mertz explained that she doesn't have children of her own so she hasn't read any of these books for years. Mertz said she loves to see how the children grow and develop. She remembers a five year old when they had the theme of "Nurses." She wanted to sound out a word. "It was steth-o-scope. I was amazed. And we are instilling that reading is fun for kids who often don't have reading at home."
Both Mertz and her husband volunteer for TRC. They go to the library to research a topic, bring home 15 or so books, read them, and exchange ideas. Then on the way home after they have read to the children they talk about what worked and what didn't, what went well. "It makes us enthusiastic so we want to do it again."
She remembers a favorite theme of "Electricity." She explained one child was the battery jumping up and down while the others held hands to practice the flow of current. "They really loved it." She said it is also important to find age appropriate reading and something that will challenge them mentally. And of course, it's important to have fun. "I enjoy the challenge of interacting with kids."
At the beginning orientation they got ideas of how to choose books and then had an on- site observation. There is also continuing education as well as an on-line blog where volunteers can exchange information. Sometimes the volunteers get together to brainstorm an idea.
"Activity time," Mertz announces. "Everyone find a spot at the table." She holds up butterfly forms, tissue paper and pipe cleaners. She turns to one child standing at the front of the table beside her, "Now you can help pass these scissors out; there are plenty for everyone."
She looks around, "What joy the kids have!"