>A thank you on behalf of VRH

>I wanted to write a brief thank-you note to everyone who supported my fundraising efforts for Volunteer Reading Help in 2010.

I’ve just heard that, including gift aid, we reached a final total of £680. This will pay for four children to receive one-to-one reading support in this school year.

It is only through the generosity of people like you that Volunteer Reading Help can give this much-needed support…so if you ponied up the cash in 2010…give yourself a pat on the back!

>Birmingham Half Marathon

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Yesterday saw the EDF Energy Half Marathon take place in Birmingham. I was pleased to get round in 1:48 – just shy of my target time.
Thankfully donations for VRH didn’t fall short and I’m pleased to say that we’ve raised enough to fund the Helper based at Herne Bay Infant School for 2010-11.
A few odds and ends are still coming in from generous folk who weren’t able to donate online – and there’s still time to click on the widget above and give to this outstanding literacy charity. Every penny goes towards helping school pupils become literate for life.
This week on Books and Adventures we’ll be starting the long-awaited series on the late Australian writer Patricia Wrightson, and following that up with news from Paint the Town Read, an exciting literacy scheme that runs down under.

>help2read – Volunteer Literacy Support in South Africa

>Books and Adventures continues our world tour of literacy support this week, heading to South Africa to visit the literacy NGO help2read.

help2read founder Alex Moss started visiting South Africa shortly after the introduction of democracy to the country in 1994. A visit to a township with a leading member of the struggle against apartheid inspired Alex to help with the construction of a new society in South Africa.

‘I was struck by the shocking levels of illiteracy arising out of the lack of adequate education during the apartheid years,’ Alex explains. ‘I was convinced that the disadvantaged majority would only ever be able to reach their full potential if they could fully enjoy the benefits of education, benefits which require the prerequisite of literacy.’


Working as a volunteer with Volunteer Reading Help in the UK showed Alex a model of literacy support which could be taken to South Africa at a comparatively low cost, but it took time for the project to get off the ground.


Early in 2005, Alex met Dee Cawcutt, the Principal of Muizenberg Junior School, just outside Cape Town. Dee offered to put her school forward as the first for what would become the help2read programme. The children, aged 5-12, are selected by class teachers as being those, other than children with special needs, perceived as most in need of assistance. They read and play literacy games with their volunteer helper, working in the school library or a quiet place outside the classroom, supported by help2read’s resource boxes full of interesting and beautiful books.

Alex takes up the story:


‘In the summer of 2005 I persuaded my daughter to come back from Washington DC, to be trained at VRH and to go to Cape Town to set up the programme. She arrived in Cape Town in early November 2005 and quickly set about recruiting volunteers wherever she could. On 1 February 2006, six trained volunteers started at Muizenberg Junior School.’


Within weeks the school was reporting unprecedented change in the pupils on the programme, ‘from being completely shut down to becoming happily involved in school life and the excitement of learning.’


The early volunteers for help2read were, like those of VRH in the UK, often middle-class people eager to share the benefits of their education and make a contribution to society. In South Africa, this group continues to provide a significant minority of volunteers – but a great change has come about from 2006, when help2read began recruiting from among the parents of a township school.


This proved very successful and quickly became the model for most help2read volunteer recruitment. Alex explains: ‘The volunteers are the literate parents of children at the same school as the children they are helping and are able to achieve equally impressive results with the children as those we gained at Muizenberg. Volunteers also benefit from the empowerment that they experience in becoming a respected member of the school community and with the success which they achieve with the children they are helping.’


help2read has already helped over 5000 South African primary school children to become literate. ‘In every single case,’ says Alex, ‘these children would have been early drop outs from the education system without the help our volunteers have given them. Now each one of them has the opportunity to go all the way through the system, to university and beyond.’


help2read’s sights for the future are also set high. Having adapted the VRH model, developed in a wealthy Western country, to a South African setting, the help2read team are planning to extend their programme to all African countries where English is the medium for education.


‘We hope to open our first programme outside South Africa by 2012,’ says Alex. ‘In the longer term, we believe that the help2read concept can be replicated in other languages and can be a major part of the solution to the literacy problem that exists in all developing countries.’


To find out more and get involved, visit http://help2read.org/

>Running for Reading at Herne Bay Infant School

>Busy times at Books and Adventures – but we still need your help to raise just £510 for a Reading Helper at Herne Bay Infant School.


Tomorrow I’m speaking at a VRH event in Kent, the county where I first discovered this amazing charity – and I’ll be dropping in to the brilliant school whose pupils need your help.


Our fundraising target is tantalisingly close – as is the race; my aching legs will find the end of all this training on 24th October a welcome relief – so every penny counts.


Click on the widget below or go to justgiving.com/booksadventures

>Birmingham Half Marathon / Volunteer Reading Help Fundraising Update

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As regular readers will know, I’m running the Birmingham Half Marathon on 24th October to raise funds for Volunteer Reading Help, after I found out that they need just £510 to fund their helper for 2010-11 at Herne Bay Infant School in Kent.
Well, I’m glad to say we’re now more than three quarters of the way there, thanks to some generous donations.

In particular I’d like to thank staff and customers of the Anne Tudor fashion shop in Stratford-upon-Avon, who worked hard to boost my coffers prior to the run!

Just a few hundred pounds will pay for a year’s worth of one-to-one work with the children who most need support with their reading skills, so please click on the justgiving widget at the bottom of this post or head straight to justgiving.com/booksadventures to help out this marvellous charity.


>Reading Partners – One to One Literacy Support in California and Washington D.C.

>This week Books and Adventures crosses the Atlantic to feature Reading Partners.

This US non-profit literacy organisation, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, helps children to become lifelong readers by developing communities’ ability to provide individual literacy support.

I was particularly excited to discover the scheme as there are many parallels between Reading Partners and the UK literacy charity Volunteer Reading Help, on which you can find more here.

Reading Partners was founded in 1999. A retired school nurse, Mary Wright Shaw, was working in a neighbourhood of Palo Alto, California, when she discovered that many local children were unable to read the books provided in her clinic’s waiting room. Together with two friends, she committed to do something about this – and what was then the ‘YES Reading’ programme was born.

Now known as Reading Partners, the organisation has expanded throughout California and Washington D.C., serving over 1700 pupils and growing from a single trailer outside of an elementary school to 37 school sites.

Volunteers work on school campuses in 45-minute one-to-one sessions with children who need extra help to get their reading up to grade level. Many pupils, coming from homes where English is not the first language, may have stronger speaking skills, but still require support with reading and writing. Reading Partners, whose volunteers range all the way from high-schoolers through to retirees, records an 88% success rate in helping students accelerate their progress in reading.

Development Manager Allison W. Cohen joins Books and Adventures to tell us more.

‘Our model is scalable, high impact, and high quality,’ she explains. ‘In the past five years Reading Partners has grown by over 600% and maintained consistent results for students in the program.’

The Reading Partners scheme has its own curriculum, designed to California Department of Education standards in collaboration with experts from the Stanford School of Education. The organisation uses Houghton Mifflin’s RIGBY PM to assess student progress, alongside state standardized tests.

This commitment to providing measurable results makes Reading Partners an attractive option for charitable donors, as Allison makes clear: ‘Reading Partners gives donors measurable, tangible results that they can point to. It is easy to see how your money is being used and the value of that donation.’

Reading Partners has responded to the challenges of the economic climate by partnering with the federal AmeriCorps programme. As the charity becomes leaner and more efficient, plans for the future are optimistic: ‘We hope to serve at least 100 schools in the next three years and tackle the childhood literacy crisis on a national scale.’

You can find out more about Reading Partners, and read their report ’10 Stories for 10 Years’, here.

>VRH Interview with Julie Nixon

>Our third and final VRH blog arrives!

The tough economic climate, and forthcoming budget cuts, affect companies, charities and public sector bodies alike. UK readers may have seen Karl Wilding from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations on the television recently, talking about the NCVO’s concerns over the impact of cuts in public sector funding of charities.

Charities like Volunteer Reading Help provide an effective means of supporting children who are struggling with their literacy skills. Just a small gift of three hours a week during school term-times can make such a huge impact on the life of an individual child – and VRH is going from strength to strength in 2010.

‘We’re so proud of increasing the number of children we help by 18% this year,’ Julie Nixon, Director of Services at VRH told Books and Adventures. ‘I foresee many opportunities to provide schools with vital 1-to-1 sessions for their children. We are a cheap alternative to many reading schemes which cost far more, and our intervention is also about the whole child.’

My visit to the Birmingham offices of PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this month opened my eyes to the generosity of firms who work with voluntary sector organisations like VSO. In addition to donating funding and the time of their staff, Julie tells me that PwC also provides rooms to host VRH functions free of charge, giving the charity a vital inner-city base of operations.


Whizz-Kidz founder Mike Dickson has spoken of the benefits of supporting a charity on this site before. Looking to the future, Julie tells Books and Adventures, ‘It would be great if companies would sponsor a local school’s VRH activities, our website, or some of our marketing materials. The support of firms like PwC is a tremendous help.’


To find out more about VRH and how you can get involved, see their website, here.

In additional news, I’m pleased to announce that on October 24th I’ll be running the Birmingham Half Marathon to raise sponsorship for the VRH activities at Herne Bay Infant School in Kent, my former base as a VRH Helper. More news nearer the date!


>VRH House of Commons and Birmingham events

>I’ve had two wonderful opportunities to promote my favourite charity, Volunteer Reading Help, this month.

On Thursday 1 July, I was a guest at the VRH Reception at the House of Commons. I was speaking on ‘Giving the Gift of Reading’.

It was an honour to be able to speak in support of such an amazing organisation as VRH. And the honour was doubled when I was invited to speak on the following Monday at the Birmingham offices of PricewaterhouseCoopers, where VRH Birmingham held its end-of-year event.

Meeting so many VRH Helpers on both days reminded me of the vital work these volunteers do on a weekly basis, across the country and throughout the school year.

I’ve been very lucky to teach and work in a lot of age ranges, and in a lot of different environments. I’ve taught Frankenstein to English undergraduates, Aimhigher weekend courses on film and fairytale, business workshops for Y10s, even Shakespeare in junior schools, but my time with Volunteer Reading Help remains unique.

VRH is an organisation which gives children an exciting and vital one-to-one learning environment which it can be hard for schools to provide. An organisation which gives its volunteers such great opportunities to learn and develop in their own right.

With up to thirty children in a primary class, there can be precious little time for schoolteachers to give the kind of nurturing one-to-one support that VRH does so well.

Schemes like Assessing Pupil Progress can leave you focused on ticking boxes and designing activities for children purely to showcase their skill-levels.

We have to keep track of how children are progressing, but we also have to find time for the fun and adventure that makes children confident and literate for life. That’s exactly what VRH offers through its child-centred, one-to-one support.

The funny thing is, if you give a child the opportunity to discover the world of words, and fall in love with books and adventures, the skill-levels will go up of their own accord!

My time as a VRH helper was incredibly rewarding.

It was my sheer good luck that I got to work with an organisation that did so much for me, giving confidence, opening doors and creating opportunities.

It was a privilege to be doing the kind of work that teachers don’t always have the time to do in class.

And above all, it was a privilege to help a child make that journey from hating books to wanting to write their own, just by providing the most gentle support.

I went into volunteering hoping to support and inspire someone in some little way, and my time with VRH repaid me thousand times over.

Find out more about how you can support VRH, or get involved, here.

Coming very soon to Books and Adventures: our final VRH interview, with Director of Operations Julie Nixon…

>Mike Dickson Interview

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On the eve of the Volunteer Reading Help reception at the House of Commons, we have one more interview for you at Books and Adventures.

Charities like VRH depend on the generosity of businesses and individuals giving their time to a good cause. Just a few hours each week can help a child who is struggling with reading to develop confidence and a love of books and stories – but when money is tight and our lives are so busy, it’s sometimes hard to imagine giving up our time for others.


Mike Dickson is the man with an answer to this dilemma. A founder of the children’s charity Whizz-Kidz, he is an incredible, energetic advocate of generosity and philanthropy in the UK and beyond. His first book, The More You Give, played an important part in shaping my corporate outreach work; this summer sees the release of Please Take One, “a call to lead a more generous life, to maximize our life not our income.”


Mike kindly took time out of a busy schedule to answer a few questions on the benefits of volunteering at the individual and corporate levels.


Why should individuals and organisations be thinking about giving at a time when we are all tightening our belts?
Well these are two separate questions.

Organisations, quite simply because employees, customers, and shareholders now expect a business to have a life outside of just making a profit, to be actively engaged in their communities and aware of their environmental footprint. Buying clothes made in India by children who should be at school, or mowing down rainforest to produce palm oil is no longer acceptable. Especially among young consumers.

Individuals should give their time – by being generous to their families, their friends, their communities and to their planet – for it is ours/ theirs.

The forthcoming cuts are going to have a staggering impact on our communities – so it is up to us to become engaged and involved where we live – by helping, caring, teaching – as John Kennedy said ‘Ask not what your country can do, ask what you can do for your country’

Two pleasant side effects of a more generous approach to life are that companies will become more intelligent and better places to work; and individuals will become happier through contributing to others – there is lots of research to prove this.


What are the benefits of volunteering one’s time as a way of giving?
It gives you a sense of purpose; introduces you to other lives and worlds; stops you whinging on about what an awful day / week / time you have had – it is very difficult to remain fixated on your own problems when helping others are less fortunate. And it actively helps to improve the community you live in and the charity you are volunteering for.


What advice could you give people looking to volunteer their time with a charity or other organisation?
Go local, or if you are helping an overseas cause look for an association – e.g. if you love India help an NGO there.


Think about what you are really interested in, even what makes you angry. Then focus on finding charities or NGOs that work in those areas. Research them online, ask friends about them. Ring the charities up and ask them what sort of help they need, go and meet them – this is well worth it – see if you like the work, get on with or are inspired by the people working in the charity and so on.


Don’t get waylaid by City folk banging on about leverage, and Return On Investment – most of it is hubris and harmful. I have heard of NGO’s asking about gender equality policies in Africa – in the good old days they would have been captured and boiled alive in pots!


Your new project is all about generosity. Can you tell us more?
The book is called Please Take One – one step into a more generous life. We have all been living in a daft way for the last 20 or 30 years in the ruthless drive to accumulate material goods, and been encouraged to become individuals, independent etc. And we are now in a mess.


Please Take One is a call to lead a more generous life, to maximize our life not our income. There are chapters on happiness, enough, poverty in the UK (truly shocking), global poverty (how to help the bottom billion), and about the threat to our environment which.


There are some great stories, quotes and facts and list of ‘steps’ – suggested actions to lead a more generous life.


Please Take One is being soft launched at Ted Global in Oxford in July when we will also be starting a global movement to encourage generosity. For people to record generous acts they have done or witnessed and ones have happened to them. All of course ‘on line’ through the web, Facebook, Twitter etc – I have even had to learn to tweet! I am hugely looking forward to reading about people’s actions.


As the Talmud says ‘to save one life is as if you have saved the world’.


You can find out more about Mike’s writings, his charitable activities and his work advising companies about their charitable giving at http://www.themoreyougive.co.uk/


The final interview in the ‘VRH Trilogy’ will be with Julie Nixon, Director of Services at Volunteer Reading Help.


After that, Books and Adventures will be heading down under to investigate Pacific mythology, Australian children’s fiction, and the magic of landscape…

>Volunteer Reading Help: Anne Loftus Interview

>On Thursday 1st July I will be speaking at the House of Commons reception of Volunteer Reading Help, the UK charity which supports children’s literacy development through one-to-one mentoring.

You can find out more about my experiences with the charity here, but today we’re joined by Anne Loftus, who wears two hats as a Volunteer Services Manager and as a Reading Helper in her own right. Anne is based in Kent and was responsible for training me as a Helper way back in the day!


How did you first get involved with VRH?
My involvement with VRH started in November 1993 when I was lucky enough to be taken on as a Volunteer Services Manager in Kent. My role involved recruiting and training volunteers who would then give individual help to children who were struggling with reading and in need of some 1:1 support. It is the best job in the world as you meet such wonderful, caring people who want to give something back to their local community and help children with their reading and confidence.


How long have you been working as a Reading Helper?
I have worked as a VSM for almost 17 years and became a Volunteer Reading Helper myself 4 years ago. I worked with a Looked After Child, Ryan, after school for just over a year and when he moved on to secondary school I worked with his younger brother, Tristan.


What were your first experiences of the programme like?
Although I had been training volunteers for many years it was very different becoming a volunteer myself. Ryan had a lot of problems and could be quite difficult at times. Without the knowledge of the VRH training I think I would have found him very difficult to cope with. Through playing games I was able to calm him down when necessary.


How have things changed at VRH in the intervening years?
The content of the training has not changed very much, although it has been updated regularly. Our volunteers have always been carefully selected; we still interview all volunteers, take up references and run an enhanced CRB check before training. Our main way of working – giving children choices, making the sessions fun and relaxed, putting no pressure on the child – this has not changed since VRH began in 1973.


What is your proudest achievement as a Helper?
My proudest achievement as a VRH Reading Helper is the day Tristan stood on the podium at the House of Commons last year and read his poem “I Like Lambourghinis”! I thought I would burst with pride!! I have worked with Tristan for 3 years now, following him to secondary school last autumn (his choice!) His confidence and reading ability has grown immensely.


How have you developed personally as a result of your involvement with VRH?
Working as a VRH Reading Helper is so rewarding and fulfilling. To see a child’s face light up when they see you and to share the very special time with a child – sometimes just chatting or reading the child a story. My own confidence has grown and meeting such wonderful people is a tonic.


Why should people volunteer their time with VRH?
If a person likes the company of children and enjoys reading, it is the most perfect form of volunteering. Plenty of patience and a sense of humour are quite important too. Just 3 hours per week and you can help to change a child’s life forever. The work is rewarding and great fun too. I truly believe that our volunteers get as much from the sessions as the children.


There will be more on Volunteer Reading Help at this blog in the run-up to the Commons event.
If you’d like to get involved with VRH, or just find out more about their incredible work, go to http://vrh.org.uk/Page.aspx