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RACINE — On the mark of United Way of Racine County staff on Wednesday, dozens of young students at Wadewitz Elementary School, 2700 Yout St., began tearing into small backpacks full of supplies for reading and writing.

With the aim of keeping the students sharp over summer, each backpack — and the 10 books inside — came from an adult tutor the student has been meeting with each week this school year through United Way’s Schools of Hope program, which uses community volunteers to boost students’ literacy skills.

“It’s been really great to see them over the year, just how much they’ve developed going from not feeling so confident about sounding out big words to then being able to tackle things on their own,” explained Kirstin Yeado, 30, of Milwaukee, community impact manager at Higher Expectations for Racine County Youth, who has been tutoring two first-grade students all year.

Starting at Wadewitz and Olympia Brown Elementary School in 2011, the Schools of Hope program has grown over the past four years to about 250 volunteers tutoring about 250 students at nine Racine Unified schools, according to a United Way summary of the program.

Each school involved with the program this year will hold its own event before the end of school to celebrate the strides students have made over the course of the year and spur them to build on what they’ve learned by continuing to read and write over the summer.

Those schools are:

  • Fratt Elementary, 3501 Kinzie Ave.
  • Giese Elementary, 5120 Byrd Ave.
  • Janes Elementary, 1425 N. Wisconsin St.
  • Knapp Elementary, 2701 17th St.
  • North Park Elementary, 4748 Elizabeth St.
  • Olympia Brown Elementary, 5915 Erie St.
  • Roosevelt Elementary, 915 Romayne Ave.
  • Johnson Elementary, 2420 Kentucky St.
  • Wadewitz Elementary, 2700 Yout St.

Through the program, volunteers spend 25 minutes each week with a student working on reading and writing skills, particularly with students in first, second and third grade.

Tom Buhler, 57, of Racine, director of business development for food flavoring manufacturer Butter Buds Inc., explained that he started volunteering with the program four years ago as his own “investment in the future” of those who will one day lead the community.

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Over the course of a year, he said students have gradullay begun to show more skills and read more in their free time.

“It’s not just about the 20 minutes, but the 20 minutes is planting the seed for something bigger than that,” Buhler said. “It’s just a sense that those 20 minutes are like putting a really strong fertilizer on a plant and you get that sense because the kids, again, are so enthusiastic about participating, they’re so receptive to direction, and they just respond to us being there.”

Yeado’s students — first-graders Jessie Bazan and Loyalti Wilkerson-Sanchez — both said reading and writing is a fun activity for them and they particularly like reading and learning about animals.

Jessie in particular noted that he really enjoyed a book about dinosaurs and what foods they ate.

“Dinosaurs cannot really go in a house and eat real pancakes,” he said with confidence. “It’s been fun for me … all of the good reading and all of the good writing.”

Having fun while reading is key, volunteers noted, because of how integral the ability to read is for learning in school and being able to hold a job later in life.

“You can see as they become more proficient in their reading, they begin to love to read, and once they begin to love to read, it will become a natural for them,” noted Marie Pascoe Craig, 71, Racine, retired director of support services for Racine Unified. “Besides professional and career development, there is the pleasure of becoming an eternal learner.”

“Reading, of course, is the doorway to everything — if you can read, you can do anything,” she added.

To learn more about the Schools of Hope program, or to sign up as a tutor, visit the website at www.unitedwayracine.org/soh.

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