Donald Wood Works With AR Kids Read to Help Arkansas Children Reach Grade-Level Proficiency

“It’s a shame that people all over the world can’t have that kind of love in their hearts.”

Sound like a familiar phrase? It’s a quote from “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls, a classic childhood read and Donald Wood’s favorite book as a kid.

It’s also something you could say about him.

Wood has a heart for nonprofits — he is the executive director of Arkansas Hospice, the chairman of the board of AR Kids Read and a regular volunteer with Women & Children First. He’s also involved with volunteer efforts at his church.

But Wood hasn’t always had this passion for helping those in need. It started when he was 16 and a teacher’s aide in high school.

“In 10th grade, I started volunteering. It wasn’t altruistically; I was a typical 16-year-old kid who all I cared about was my life and what I was going to do that weekend with my friends,” Wood says. “But as a TA, I started working with a special-education class at my high school, and through that I became a Special Olympics coach and that completely changed my life.”

Wood said he enjoyed seeing how happy the students were, and how something as simple as spending time with them brought them so much joy. He says that as he grew up, he realized that volunteering and the organizations that made it possible were much more complex than he initially thought.

“I can’t just go volunteer or be a volunteer coordinator for an organization and change the world necessarily,” Wood says. “I had to look at all the different aspects that affected an issue. In my early 20s, I realized I wanted a career in nonprofit leadership and community development.”

Now his full-time day job is with the nonprofit Arkansas Hospice.

“In some small way I am bringing dignity and hope and healing to people at the end of life,” Wood says. “We just don’t think about the end of our life, but it’s inevitable. I just think it’s an absolute human right that everyone deserves to die in dignity and comfort, and surrounded by loved ones.”

He also devotes much of his time outside the office to helping others. The organization that is currently at the top of his priority list is AR Kids Read, where he is chairman of the board of directors.

Credit: Jason Masters

AR Kids Read is a literacy organization aimed at helping children read proficiently by the fourth grade. In Arkansas, seven out of 10 students read at below grade level. In Pulaski County alone, 47 percent of students are not reading at grade level, which means there are 1,500 students per grade in the county who are not proficient.

Wood isn’t just working behind the scenes to help keep AR Kids Read running and funded — he’s also on the frontlines, spending an hour a week tutoring kids.

“I have two little boys this year and they’re hilarious,” Wood says, smiling. “As of now, they seem to be excited to see me and we spend 30 minutes together.”

In those 30 minutes, he and each student go through a plan laid out by the school reading specialist. This can include reading a book, working on sight words and more. But the student/tutor relationship is not just about literacy.

“I try and spend a few minutes just asking how their weekend was to build a relationship so they’re comfortable around me,” Wood says. “But we read and try to get through as much of the lesson as we can.”

He recalled a session that reminded him AR Kids Read is more than a tutoring service — it’s a caring adult taking a role in the life of an underprivileged child. Wood said he was working with a girl from a disadvantaged home with a single mother. She was usually excited for her time with Wood, but on that particular day she couldn’t stay focused.

“She was so sweet, but abnormally tired,” Wood said. “She told me that the night before she had heard gunshots outside of her apartment and had ended up getting under her bed and then going into the bedroom with her mom.”

Wood said having something so consistent in their lives is important to many of the students. What resonated for him that day was “the stability of having a person come for 10 weeks, the interaction they have with (an) adult who is there as a volunteer just because they care for this child.”

Charlie Conklin is the executive director of AR Kids Read, and like Wood, he isn’t just in the background managing the organization. One of his fondest tutoring memories is tutoring a student in an English as a Second Language program, where he was able to pick up some new words as well.

“I thought that … students that are ESL really might need a bilingual tutor, but it’s just the opposite that really you want to have folks that are fluent in English working with ESL students,” Conklin said. “I was tutoring a second-grade girl and as I was working on reading a book with her, she was helping me learn to pronounce certain things, like colors, in Spanish.”

Conklin said that a student who reads at the 50th percentile reads, on average, nine minutes per day. A student who is at the 95th percentile, on the other hand, reads 42 minutes per day. A little more than 30 minutes of reading can help a student kick-start new habits and improve reading skills significantly.

With around 500 tutors dedicating 60 minutes per week in 44 Pulaski County schools, AR Kids Read reaches more than 1,000 students each semester.

For Wood, being a volunteer and involved with nonprofits is a family commitment.

His wife, Jennifer, is a regular volunteer at Women and Children First, a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Her involvement inspired him to spend time there as well.

“I love it. It’s not work to me,” Wood says. “I always find connections eventually with organizations where we can work together and work more efficiently. That’s one of the things I love about this community.”

His daughter, Cameron, also helps out at the shelter. At 14, he calls her “unusually empathetic.”

“It was very hard for me to not take things for granted when I was a 14-year-old kid,” Wood says. “So what her mom and I try to instill in her is that she is very fortunate and also to treat everybody fairly.”

Wood said he strives to live by those standards as well, and to be humble, honest and kind. He also says that equity and justice are very important to him, and he wants to give people the benefit of the doubt.

He shows that he truly embodies these qualities by the way he helps those less fortunate than himself — especially the children he tutors in AR Kids Read.

“Probably 100 percent of the time those children have no influence on all the different factors in their life that are impacting them,” Wood says. “I don’t care what faith they believe in, the color of their skin, where they’re from, they deserve as much as anybody to have a life of success and significance.”

How to Get Involved

• VOLUNTEER. Individuals can volunteer to tutor for one hour per week during the upcoming spring semester for 10 weeks. To sign up, visit and click on the “volunteer” tab.

• PARTNER. Companies can become partner organizations by providing at least five tutors and a volunteer coordinator to the AR Kids Read initiative. Each tutor works with students for one hour a week for 10 weeks.

• DONATE. Sponsors provide financial resources or in-kind donations that help defray costs associated with volunteer recruitment, promotion and training.

• HOST. AR Kids Read doesn’t have the resources to host its own fundraising events, so Wood encourages people to hold third-party events where people donate proceeds or tips from their own event to AR Kids Read.

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