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/ Categories: Our World Made Better

Alton Memorial Board President Passionate About Youth Reading

In 2013, BJC CEO Steve Lipstein was honored with the St. Louis Post Dispatch Citizen of the Year award. While accepting the award, he stated that a child's third grade reading status is an early predictor of life-long earning potential and life expectancy.

“That really stuck with me,” said Alton Memorial Hospital board chairman Steve Thompson. “I thought about what a short window that was, and how fortunate that I had parents who read to me.”

Only 20 percent of second and third graders reading below grade level will go on to college. Steve Thompson began asking the question, “What can we do to improve this?” He met with Alton School District literacy coaches Elaine Kane and Rene Hart to share his vision of people reading to people. His enthusiasm was contagious and soon they developed a plan.

“We tried to think out of the box,” Steve explained. “Children arrive at school at 7:30 a.m. and wait for school to begin at 8 a.m. What if they used that time to read? We piloted a program at East Elementary School, with children reading books of their choice to adults. Our goal was to get 20 volunteers from area businesses, churches and senior groups.”

Steve started drumming up support, creating a network of people who care. The ROAR (Reach Out and Read) program was an instant success.

“We now have nearly 200 volunteers and the program keeps growing,” Steve continued. “We added first and second grades and offer the program in all seven elementary schools.”

And they are seeing results. At East Elementary, the percentage of children reading at or above grade level increased from 50 percent to 75 percent. A total of 191 volunteers contributed 2,908 hours during the 2015-16 school year to help children improve their reading skills by providing individual attention and encouragement. The dollar value of this donation of time is nearly $30,000. Nearly 40 percent of the volunteers are men, providing a positive male influence. More than 60 staff members volunteer their time to coordinate the ROAR program. And there’s never a shortage of children waiting to read to an adult.

The cost of the program is negligible, and the benefits are immense. Many volunteers say that spending time with the children gives them a lift that stays with them throughout the day. Volunteers are screened by filling out a form and new volunteers are always welcome.

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