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Children learn reading skills in homeless shelter

Ginger Cashin works with third-grader Mayce Simpson during Reading is Fun, a literacy program operated by Atlanta Urban Ministries for children living in homeless shelters. UMNS photos by Heidi Robinson.

By Heidi Robinson*
Sept. 17, 2008 | ATLANTA (UMNS)

Sixteen children gleefully hop off the yellow bus after a full day in school, chattering with friends as they head inside for a snack.

Alethia Simpson and her children plan to move into an apartment soon.

They are home—for now—at a homeless shelter for mothers and children.

"When does the reading program start tonight?" asks Mayce, a third-grader.

Mayce and her family came to the shelter several months ago as her mother struggled with an addiction to crack cocaine.

"There have been blessings in this crisis," says Mayce’s mother, Alethia Simpson, 36. "The tears I am crying now are tears of joy."

Simpson’s three daughters—Mayce, Chelsea and Tracie—entered Reading is Fun, a program offered twice a week to the shelter's children. The literacy program has been operated for five years by Atlanta Urban Ministries, an outreach of the United Methodist North Georgia Conference.

Simpson says the program has had a dramatic effect on her daughters' outlook on school.

Millicent Green uses flash
cards to help a second-grader.

"Chelsea would cry when someone asked her to read, and her teacher said she was on the border of failing last year," Simpson says. "Her latest progress report has As and Bs. I am so proud of her. My girls are now helping other children read."

The ministry serves about 100 children each year and hired educator Millicent Green to oversee the sessions.

"Children who experience homelessness have special academic needs," says Green, a public school teacher in Atlanta. "They may change schools multiple times within the school year. It creates gaps in their learning. We want to bridge the gaps with solid reading skills."

Reading is Fun relies on a dedicated team of 15 volunteers who tutor the children in reading fluency, sight words and phonics. Coming from a variety of professional backgrounds, the volunteers are accountants, business leaders, college students and retirees.

"No teaching experience is required, but consistency is a must," explains Ginger Cashin, supervisor of children’s programs at Atlanta Urban Ministries. "Our programs help offer a source of stability when families have been in survival mode."

Lockheed Martin engineer Robert Hanson has volunteered here for years. He holds flashcards for a struggling third-grader and says, "OK, the 'y' sounds like a long 'i.' Let’s try this word again."

Volunteer Robert Hanson helps a child practice reading.

Atlanta Urban Ministries also provides after-school homework help and a writing lab to hone language arts skills.

Tracie Simpson, 15, proudly shares the difference the personalized help has made to the start of her high school experience.

"I used to be afraid to read in front of my class. Now I read faster, I speak louder. I am in a literature and debate class, and I am getting great grades," says the ninth-grader. "It is fun to read. I didn’t know there were so many books to choose from."

Most of the shelter's families live here for about eight weeks, and the children attend public schools in Atlanta. As each school-age child enters the shelter, he or she receives a reading assessment. Most score below grade-level, and some of the children have had to start at the very beginning.

"We knew we needed to provide this," Cashin says. "Some of our kids would come in after school and couldn’t read the directions for the homework. Our hope is that they develop a love reading, but more than that they will know they are capable."

*Robinson is a freelance producer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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