"The greatest gift is the




passion for reading."




"" Elizabeth Hardwick




For book lovers, few things are as joyful as reading. It is a pleasure that usually starts in childhood. In the third-grade, my teacher, Ms. Nickles, would read one chapter of "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" twice a week. I was pretty much hooked on books by chapter 4. I am forever grateful to Ms. Nickles. Many adults who love reading had a parent or mentor or teacher who shared the sheer bliss of a book with them and changed their lives forever.




It has been well documented that one of the best ways to encourage children to read is to read with them. This simple yet powerful truth is the driving force behind the SMART reading program. SMART is an acronym for Start Making a Reader Today. The program is a staple in many Rogue Valley schools, and offers proven benefits for students, as well as a rewarding role for volunteers.




Julie Brimble, area manager for Jackson County's SMART program, explains that SMART is a statewide nonprofit unique to Oregon. It partners with hundreds of schools to provide literacy support to children in kindergarten through third-grade. Teachers recommend students who need extra encouragement or support for participation in the program, which complements the school's curriculum.




"This is a program we are really proud of," Brimble said. "Knowing there are caring adults in the community is great for the kids. They see community members coming to their school, sitting with them and sharing their time and the joy of reading. It makes a tremendous difference."




Part of what makes SMART special is its focus on building a reading relationship between students and volunteers. Local SMART coordinators recruit and train community volunteers to read once a week from October to May with two children. SMART organizers say the consistent, one-on-one relationship gives children the attention, self-confidence and skills to succeed in school and beyond. SMART further encourages children to read outside the classroom by giving them new books each month.




"For one hour a week, volunteers read with the kids. We're there to encourage the children to enjoy reading," Brimble said.




She is especially proud of the Rogue Valley volunteers.




"The response from the community has been pretty good," she said. "It speaks to the importance and success of the program. We aim to offer a consistent, quality program. Year after year, the schools invite us back, and we are happy to return."




Karen Amarotico, an Ashland volunteer with SMART, says the program not only benefits the children and schools, but the volunteers, as well.




"With SMART volunteers, we want kids to love reading as much as we do," she said.




Amarotico started with the SMART program in Portland in 1998. She recalls the satisfaction of watching a child grow into a book lover.




"I remember one little boy I worked with. He would pick the hardest books just to hear them," she said.




At times, Amarotico worked with children coming from difficult situations. She admits the work can sometimes be emotionally difficult.




"It is the easiest thing to do and the hardest," she said. "I learned there are needs I just can't fill, but I also learned that, if you are there every week, you can encourage a child to read, you can share your love of reading with him or her, and you can make an impact."




Budget cuts and a rough economy have left the Rogue Valley program struggling a bit more than usual. Its paid coordinator position has been eliminated, and the program is relying more on its volunteers and donors. Regardless of the changes, Amarotico and other volunteers remain committed to the reading program.




"I don't ever want to stop," Amarotico said. "If I can help kids read, I'll do it."




To volunteer as a reader or to make a donation to the SMART program, visit its Web site at or call 734-5628.