A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Read With Me - September 1997

The Harvard Emerging Literacy Project (HELP)

How One Community Is Making a Difference

Many preschoolers love books. When young readers and volunteers spend time in the universe of books, they find themselves on special journeys through yet-undiscovered worlds filled with very hungry caterpillars, friendly dragons, and even hidden corners where the wild things are. Other young people, however, are reluctant to read--but it isn't always those hidden corners that make them uneasy.

Many of America's preschoolers aren't regularly read to on a one-on-one basis, if at all. While this is a sad fact, it also offers a wonderful opportunity to our country's volunteers. This handbook is designed for college students interested in starting public service reading programs in their communities. While specifically geared to college students working with preschool children, many of the ideas discussed can easily be applied to children of many different ages. All children benefit from the stimulation one-on-one reading provides. Children who have received little or no attention of this sort often benefit even more.

The Harvard Emerging Literacy Project (HELP), an independent undergraduate group, was founded in 1996 by an undergraduate's desire to help. The group began with just a few undergraduates volunteering to read in a single Head Start classroom once a month. From there the group has become one of the fastest-growing service organizations on campus and currently places weekly and biweekly reading volunteers in every Head Start classroom in Cambridge, with plans to expand next year.

Undergraduates involved with HELP have also gradually discovered that young children are by no means the only ones who benefit from volunteer literacy efforts. While most people understand that these preschoolers gain a great deal from this stimulation, many volunteers feel they learn as much as the children. As a result, these volunteers not only enjoy the experience of public service, but thrive on it.

Each volunteer's experience with these remarkable children has been different. Some speak of increased feelings of compassion, others greater sensitivity, and still others describe a heightened sense of perspective. However everyone has gained an increased appreciation for individual kindness in our often hectic society.

Growing up, no matter what your age, can be an unsettling experience. But somehow those places where the "wild things" live don't seem nearly as scary if you have a brave four-year-old beside you.

Basic Principles: How To Get Started

One of the hardest parts of setting up a literacy volunteer program is finding a group of children to help. While almost all day care centers love to have volunteers, the thought of working with an organized group of unknown volunteers makes some teachers and caregivers nervous--especially if they feel that the individual needs of their classrooms might be ignored. To avoid this problem, start slowly and plan carefully. Here are some things that worked for HELP:

Take Advantage of Your School's Resources

The greatest resources volunteer literacy groups have are the specialized strengths of their individual members. Don't be afraid to challenge your college or university to support your efforts. A number of schools, for example, are beginning to give academic credit for some volunteer activities and others are implementing public service focus programs within certain majors. In addition, many fraternities, sororities, and other groups might be interested in getting involved with community outreach programs.


When training volunteers remember that all children, including those with special needs, learn from the reading strategies discussed in this booklet. Also, many child care centers require volunteers to have certain vaccinations (which are usually required by colleges anyway) and complete a small amount of paperwork. This may seem tedious, but it often goes quickly--enabling you to get on to more important and meaningful things.

Take Advantage of Available Networks

HELP organizers spent an entire semester talking with early childhood teachers and visiting day care, play school, and Head Start classrooms before the first volunteer even signed up. While it may not take this long for you to find a classroom or set of classrooms that works for your group, realize that this "coalition building" is very important--many groups fail because they grow too big too quickly. HELP eventually chose Cambridge's Head Start program because these ten or so classrooms were already linked in many useful ways, making it easy for HELP to gradually expand from one classroom into others.

Recruiting Volunteers

Recruiting volunteers is often one of the most rewarding aspects of this sort of work because it reminds current volunteers of all the things they love about the program--especially when they are passionate about what is being done. One of the very best ways to interest others is by allowing them to see the way in which this work has enriched your own life--not to mention the lives of the children with whom you have worked.

Work With--Not Simply For--Communities

Possibly more than anything else, lessons learned during HELP's first year highlight the critical importance of working with teachers, families, and communities instead of trying to simply do things for them. Don't misunderstand: an individual volunteer reading for an hour a week with a child is wonderful--the benefits multiply, however, when that volunteer also begins to interact with the child's teachers, family members, and community. When starting a new program, look for ways to integrate your group into the already existing structure of the children's lives.

Focus Your Efforts

Just as all children are different, each child care center has special strengths and diverse needs. By building on strengths and focusing on growth areas, volunteer groups can dramatically enhance a child's educational world. Specializing in family literacy is an excellent example of how some groups focus their work on individual community needs, though there are many other ways to do this as well.

Keep the Dialogue Going

Even by the end of the first introduction meeting you will probably notice that people will hang around to talk, compare their experiences, and begin to become friends. People tend naturally to combine in this way, despite the fact that many organizations try to eliminate these "unproductive" times altogether. Do not make this mistake. Discussion about the future of your program and reflection on personal and shared experiences are absolutely critical for any healthy service group.

Finally, Establish a Firm Base From Which To Grow

While setting up the group requires the most energy, other things need to be considered after this is done. Most importantly, remember to keep enthusiasm and interest up--but don't worry if the first weeks are rocky. Volunteers are normally very excited by the first few encounters. After the initial visits, enthusiasm might lag for a brief period while people get adjusted, but it will rise again as volunteers and preschoolers begin to form true friendships. During this time, focus on strengthening the relationships within your organization and between your group and the larger community.

Without question, one of the most important things about this sort of project is the recruitment of new leaders. In addition, the distinction between working for and working with communities is also essential. By encouraging members to take an active role in both your organization and the larger community, your group will be better able to respond to the changing interests of everyone involved. Finally, starting early is crucial. Hopefully you will find younger undergraduates to run the program after you leave and, with any luck at all, maybe one day some of your preschoolers will take over for them. Best of luck.


[Preface] [Table of Contents] [Making Connections: How Children Learn]