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As a young girl, Sara Thomas rarely ventured far from her small Alabama hometown but still traveled the world, through books.
“Reading allowed me to dream, to visualize the way that other people lived and thought,” said Thomas, 79, of Conyers, a retired educator who helped children with special needs learn to read.
Today, she is opening up the world to even more students by volunteering with AARP Foundation Experience Corps. The literacy program, which pairs adults 50-plus with children reading below grade level, has flourished in Georgia.
Launched four years ago in Macon, it expanded in 2019 to DeKalb County, where 39 volunteers tutored 86 students in four public elementary schools.
Experience Corps is on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it is scheduled to return in the fall, provided that in-person interactions have resumed by then.
Though the program was cut short by more than two months because of the outbreak, it still made significant inroads. After five months of tutoring, nearly all of the students improved their reading scores, and 43 percent were reading at or above grade level. At E.L. Miller Elementary, in Stone Mountain, 93 percent of kids showed gains in their scores.
Nationwide, some 31,000 children and 2,300 volunteers are participating in Experience Corps, which is for students in kindergarten through third grade.
Statistics show that children who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely not to graduate from high school.
“All of the volunteer tutors realize that working with a student who is reading below grade level—sometimes below two grade levels—is a big deal,” said Shun Dorsey, program manager at United Way of Greater Atlanta, which hosts DeKalb’s program. “They understand the importance of literacy in a child’s life.”
A sense of purpose for tutors
Since 2016, more than 80 volunteers with Macon’s Experience Corps program have helped roughly 1,440 students in 10 elementary schools. Its success fueled the expansion into DeKalb County last year, and program leaders hope to eventually move into other areas of the state.
Volunteers meet one-on-one with students for 30 minutes, twice a week. They receive training in the fall, and the program typically begins in late September or October.
The benefits of Experience Corps extend well beyond the classroom, said Angelique Smith, 52, a retired school principal who now serves as site coordinator for the program at Redan Elementary, in Lithonia. Students get a confidence boost that can carry over into their personal lives, she said. “It is very rare that they can get that one-on-one time during the school day that the program offers.”
The program also gives tutors a sense of purpose. Experience Corps has provided Barbara Currence-Davis, 70, an opportunity to connect with her community since she moved to Stone Mountain two years ago from Canton, Ohio, where she also volunteered as a literacy tutor.
“I wanted to get involved, and the program has helped me find that sense of community,” Currence-Davis said. “The children and I bonded very quickly.”
Want to volunteer? Go to aarp.org/experience-corps.
Ann Hardie is a writer living in Atlanta.
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