On Friday, I was interviewed by Jacqui Alexander of Stratford Community Radio’s book show, Happily Ever After.
Jacqui’s weekly show provides a forum for writers and book lovers in Stratford-upon-Avon. From SCR’s attic nest, she brings together music, talk and literary news for a town that, despite being Shakespeare’s birthplace, doesn’t even have a writers’ group – yet!
Jacqui and I had a chat about the work of Volunteer Reading Help, the UK charity that provides vulnerable children with one-to-one literacy support.
I got involved with VRH while I was working on my doctorate a few years back. I’d recently moved to Kent and was looking for a way to give something to the local community – as well as an excuse to get away from my thesis, my keyboard and my daily three-litre coffee habit.
Anne Loftus, manager of VRH East Kent, delivered the training alongside Lucille Galli-Philips, the Specialist Psychologist for Looked After Children. These were just two of the many unsung heroes who I was privileged to work alongside during my time in primary education.
After my training was complete, I was assigned two ‘looked-after children’ from the area. They were boys in foster care. In hour-long weekly after-school sessions, we began to get to know one another, play games, chat and read together. The older boy wanted to play Monopoly – which he could thrash me at when he put his mind to it. He was also obsessed with a Warcraft-style online fantasy game, for which we started to research a prepare a how-to guide.
The other child I worked with was younger. He’d just started junior school. Initially he was very resistant to reading books, or even looking at them. I spent the first few sessions gently reminding him not to tear apart the pop-up books which we began with.
Gradually, through puzzles, snap and other card games, and an increasingly thorough examination of the Where’s Wally series, we began to read together and develop a bond of trust. We had a go at being rappers, adapted a Jenga tower with sticky labels so that you had to invent a joke using key words each time you withdrew a brick, covered a classroom floor with a chain of dominoes and invented a Doctor Who adventure.
Eventually I moved to London and the sessions had to come to an end. We each made the other a leaving card. The boy’s one showed him writing a book for me. He had gone from tearing up pages to finding his own words and stories.
Nothing I have done in my life has ever been so worthwhile, or so rewarding. It was my privilege as a Reading Helper to support someone in making this journey, simply by providing an environment of trust and fun where a child could explore the world of storytelling.
Without VRH and the experience it gave me, I would never have become a schoolteacher and might never have started on my children’s stories. Just a small gift of an hour or two a week during school term-times can make such a huge impact on the life of an individual child.
Find out more about how you can get involved here.