Experience Corps volunteer Kaye Billingslea helps young students in Macon improve their reading. Photo by Melissa Golden

By Drew Jubera

Kaye Billingslea’s fondest childhood memories include reading with her grandmother, who had developed glaucoma and needed her young granddaughter to read to her aloud.

Whenever Billingslea read too fast, her grandmother would stop her and say, “I know there’s a little dot at the end of that sentence. That’s a period.” Or: “See that curly thing? That’s a comma.”

“I was her eyes,” recalled Billingslea, 72. “Every sentence had to be just right. And I had to read with expression. She developed a love of reading in me.”

Billingslea, a retired machine operator living in Macon, now applies many of her grandmother’s lessons while volunteering at Southfield Elementary School for Experience Corps, an AARP Foundation tutoring program that trains adults 50 and older to help young students improve reading skills and reach grade-level proficiency.

The Macon program, the only Experience Corps site in Georgia, is completing its second year and expanding rapidly. It has grown from four to nine Bibb County schools, with almost 40 volunteers serving about 200 kids.

It is aimed at kindergarten to third-grade students in high-poverty areas who read below grade level. Results have been impressive. More than half of those who participated this year improved their reading scores by 50 points or more; over a third are now reading at grade level.

“These volunteers give the gift of reading,” said Shelton Land, education program manager at United Way of Central Georgia, the AARP Foundation affiliate that hosts the local Experience Corps program.

Volunteers receive about 20 hours of training throughout the year, including eight before they begin at a school. They’re given strategies and skills necessary for working in a 21st-century classroom, where the culture and resources have often changed dramatically from when volunteers went to school.

Tutors usually work with two to four students for about 30 minutes each session, once or twice a week. They meet with the same students the entire year to develop mentorship and consistency.

The volunteers use guide books that emphasize areas such as vocabulary, phonics, fluency and comprehension, then use their own experiences to motivate and inspire their students. Earlean Lewis, 63, has three grown children, one of whom had problems with reading while growing up.

“Each child is different, but most of them like to read about things that interest them—for example, superheroes, sports and animals,” said Lewis, the program site coordinator at Southfield Elementary.

“I learned you have to find the thing that interests them, and when you find that, they’ll start reading those books,” she said.

Tutors say the students often consider them in the same way as they do their own grandparents, and open up in ways they might not with other adults.

“They see adults who care for them even though they aren’t part of their family,” said James Seay, 68, a Macon minister who volunteers once a week. “I think that adds up.”

For some tutors, Experience Corps can provide the kinds of intergenerational bonds often lost in a faster-paced, more mobile world. Billingslea wants the kids to have the same thing she got early on: a love for something that will help them the rest of their lives.

“Reading is so important and I want them to understand that,” she said. “But I don’t want them to feel like it’s something they must do. I want them to do it because they enjoy it – like I did with my own grandmother.”

If you want to be an Experience Corps volunteer, contact JoLee Henson, United Way volunteer engagement specialist, at 478-621-7799, or go to readunitedcg.org.

Drew Jubera is a writer living in Atlanta.