Founded in 2012, AR Kids Read was the brainchild of multiple community members who saw a need and acted.
“It really has so much breadth and depth to it because so many people bought into the vision,” says executive director Kathy French. “It was the community itself that saw the need. Multiple people saw the need at the same time and made it happen.”
The literacy nonprofit recruits, trains and mobilizes volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring to help students reach reading goals, an achievement that can change the trajectory of their lives.
“If kids aren’t reading on grade level by third grade, a bunch of other dominoes start to fall in their lives,” French says. “Our purpose is to keep that from happening.”
Keeping children at grade level in reading can lead to their future graduation, ability to hold a job and can even ensure safer and more economically successful communities. With this in mind, AR Kids Read helps schools and parents reinforce what children are learning in the classroom, going so far as to host family coaching events where parents can learn simple exercises to do at home to help their kids practice blending sounds.
Sometimes a comforting environment and welcoming volunteers make all the difference in a kid’s willingness to work on a challenging subject.
“You have to have technique, but you also have to have a safe place for a child, particularly a child that has been beaten down and knows they’re not where they need to be,” French says. “They get discouraged, they may have other issues going on in their life, so having a caring adult come into their life and give them focused attention and encouragement is so important. We want to be aligned with the school systems, but we also need to boost confidence and self-esteem.”
A pilot program that pairs UA Pine Bluff teacher candidates with tutoring opportunities at a local elementary school is the first of what the nonprofit hopes will be many partnerships.
“Aligning those that are learning literacy in their college classroom with young students that need literacy services is helping the kids and the college students. We’re giving them the curriculum to teach that is in line with what they’re learning in the classroom,” French says.
AR Kids Read’s primary fundraiser, “Spellebration,” is designed to help further these programs as well as other tutoring and outreach efforts. The April 6 event invites local celebrities and their teams to compete in a spelling bee while audience members can “buzz in” and assist for a donation, all with an end goal to raise a total of $90,000.
The theme of this year's bee is “Superheroes Among Us,” which will highlight “super students” and community members who make AR Kids Read a success. Two of those individuals are this year’s community leader honorees Kathleen and Jim Cargill.
“They understand it’s not just about a job, it’s about how they contribute to the larger world and the impact they are having on it,” French says. “Jim has done that professionally, and Kathleen has invested her time first as a teacher and now as one of our tutors. They both see themselves as part of a bigger whole.”
The Cargills were humbled to be named honorees.
“When we were first told about this, I thought, ‘I’m just a tutor,’” Kathleen says. “But Jim and I discussed it, and he reminded me that I would do anything to help give these kids the opportunity to read more, and this recognition was just one more way.”
And Jim has thrown his hat into the ring, too.
“She can nudge other teachers and I can nudge other company leaders to engage their teams — if it helps two people, that’s twice as many as we had before,” says Jim, who was introduced to the organization through his work with the chamber of commerce and his role as president and CEO of Arvest Bank, from which he recently retired.
“We just wanted to be a part of influencing and creating conversations about this being a resource and making sure all the schools around know about it,” Jim says. “I had 38 Arvest branches in 15 counties, and we got the word out in those schools and neighborhoods about this program.”
Kathleen, a retired schoolteacher, saw firsthand for 32 years how much a program like this was needed.
“It does mean so much to these kids for an adult to sit down and look them straight in the eyes and say, ‘I’m here for you, and I’m listening to no one but you right now.’ They just love that. They need it. They thrive on it. That relationship is very important.”
Building those relationships and skills in tandem is crucial and, Jim says, can help kids better understand the options available to them in life and align future career opportunities. Even in the short term, he loves when kids who have been through the program return to speak at group meetings, and is always amazed by their progress.
“It changes their self-esteem,” he says. “It clicks and it changes how they view themselves.”
For French, it's a constant reminder of the powers of literacy and connection, both on a singular level and beyond.
“There are so many ways to be an advocate for literacy, and I think it’s important for people to understand it’s not just helping a kid that’s behind in reading,” she says. “We are helping our whole community be stronger. It affects everyone. It’s an investment in Little Rock.”
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