Shirley Jensen volunteers to read with children for the ROAR (Reach Out and Read) program at Winola Elementary School. Here, Bella Jensen, her great-granddaughter, reads to her.

VIOLA — Winola Elementary School first-graders recently gave their reading buddies a warm thank you to end the ROAR (Reach Out and Read) program for the school year.

Winola Principal Kari Roberts told the volunteers: “Thank you for keeping (the program) alive for us. The kids love it; they talk about it all the time. Hopefully you’ve made some friendships that will last a lifetime.”

About 20 volunteers were paired with the first-graders at the beginning of the school year. Each Wednesday morning, the duos spent 20 minutes reading together. Another 20-plus volunteers were ready to sub if someone couldn't make it on any given day.

The 60 first-graders each get 20 minutes of one-on-one time to read out loud with their partners.

The long-running program was started by Ramona McMeekan, a now retired teacher who worked at Coyne Center Grade School in the 1970s. She brought the program with her to Winola Elementary and began again the second year after the school was annexed to Sherrard with the help of retired teachers Arlene Duty and Katie Hall.

Mary Bischoff, the retired Sherrard High School teacher who is now ROAR coordinator, works with first-grade teachers Julie Burns, Heather Barber and Natalie Beaver to keep the program going strong.

Bischoff said when she retired five years ago, she needed something to do. “I liked working with the school district. When they asked me to be a reader, I said yes. My mom was a fourth-grade teacher here for many years, I feel very comfortable in the building." She said several Winola teachers were her students.

"I wanted to come back and give to the school district," she added.

Several of the volunteers are retired teachers. All are community members, and a few are grandparents who started when their grandchildren were in first grade and kept coming back.

Volunteer Jane Lawson, a retiree, said she’d been helping since 2003, and the kids kept her coming back.

“I love them. You see them out on the street, and they come up and say hi to you. It makes you feel good."

Lawson said one of her first-graders invited her to his house.

“He said, ‘You just come over when it comes time for the bus to come. You can ride the bus, and go home and find out where I live,' " she said with a laugh.

She said the difference in the kids' reading skills at the beginning of the program and the end is "amazing."

"There are some that really need the extra help. ... They’re just sweet kids," she said.

Lawson, 86, raised four children who all graduated from Winola High School. Her husband graduated from the school when it was in the Viola School District, and they currently have several great-grandchildren attending each school in the district. One of her grandchildren, Amber Bruning, works for the district as a speech pathologist.

Burns has been with the district for more than 30 years. She said the program boosted kids' self-confidence.

"It gives them a chance to sit with somebody one-on-one and have undivided attention, and that is so valuable," she said. "They look forward to seeing their ROAR listener every single week."

Each child made his or her reading partner a picture magnet and wrote a thank-you letter.

First-grader Cason Pundt said he didn’t want the program to end. “I love to read,” he said.


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