Program at Port Arthur schools shows why reading is important

Patti Wilson, dressed as Pete the Cat, read to students the book by the same nam

Y Reads with You, a literacy program developed by the partnership of the YMCA of Southeast Texas and Port Arthur Independent School District, hosted its kickoff celebration at Sam Houston Elementary in Port Arthur on Thursday, Oct. 1. 

With storytelling, snacks and activities, the preliminary event was an educational and interactive success.

YREADS encourages growth and excellence among the children in the community, with the objective of improving reading, reading fluency, and comprehension for area students, as well as building self esteem and confidence. Several volunteers and representatives from Valero, Flint Hills, Sam Houston Elementary and PAISD came to support the kickoff and witness the benefits of the after-school program.

Barbara Phillips, director of public affairs for Valero, and YMCA’s CEO Bud Oliver said the implementation of local reading programs is paramount. “It’s really an effective program that is changing the way the students feel about reading,” said Phillips.

 Leah Sam, literacy director of YREADS, started the event with a brief but enthusiastic introduction while students, ranging from grades 3 to 5, were provided snacks. Patti Wilson, dressed as “Pete the Cat,” read to participating students the book by the same name. At the end of the story, students were on their feet joining “Pete” for an interactive singing activity.

Flint Hills, in its second year of a three-year funding agreement with “YREADS,” donated books to all kids present, giving them a choice from several titles, such as The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling and How Not to Babysit Your Brother by Cathy Hapka and Ellen Titlebaum. Students were eager to receive their gift and after returning to their tables, most of them immediately started sifting through the pages, a sure sign that with positive encouragement, children take the initiative to read and learn on their own.

Melissa Oliva, principal of Sam Houston Elementary, gave a heartfelt speech, admitting it was difficult to refrain from getting emotional over her appreciation for the program and its financial backers.

“They’re not just doing it in the afterschool programs; it’s carrying on into the homes,” Oliva said. “Flint Hills, we couldn’t do this without you. We are very, very grateful … from the bottom of our hearts, thank you so much for helping our students succeed.”

To the students’ delight, the gym was set up with several activity stations that combined physical recreation with word association and educational exercises. The children were able to jump rope, bowl, play basketball and solve puzzles throughout a carefully planned obstacle course that kept them laughing, moving and, most importantly, thinking.

The program engages students three to four days a week after school. Teachers choose which students they believe will benefit most from the program. Their selections are based on testing from the previous year, and YREADS helps them with the aid of volunteers from October until April, when testing begins again.

“Children need to be engaged by third grade,” said Jody Holton, marketing director for the YMCA. “Their chances of developing healthy reading habits and an interest in reading greatly increase when they are engaged as early as possible.”

Claire Jackson, spokesperson for Flint Hills, says the company has donated $30,000 to date, and is looking forward to the program’s expansion. While YREADS has already expanded to include Lucian Adams, Dick Dowling and Booker T. Washington elementary schools, it hopes to broaden its reach to incorporate other local school districts.

“Our support of the … program directly aligns with Flint Hills Resources’ commitment to education,” said Denny Wiseman, site manager for Flint Hills Resources Port Arthur. “YREADS has successfully improved literacy at four Port Arthur ISD schools over the past five years, and we are proud to partner with this program.”

With ambitious goals, positive community feedback and charitable local funding, YREADS is determined to address fundamental literacy issues and promote successful reading habits in local children.