Valley Parents: Mentorship program pairs students with encouraging adults

Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Spencer Wallack, of White River Junction, Vt. reacts to the game he and fourth-grader C.J. Stocker are playing at the White River School on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction. After reading a chapter book together, the pair finished with the game. Wallack is in his first year volunteering the program. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Spencer Wallack, of White River Junction, Vt. reacts to the game he and fourth-grader C.J. Stocker are playing at the White River School on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction. After reading a chapter book together, the pair finished with the game. Wallack is in his first year volunteering the program. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photos - Jennifer Hauck

While eating her lunch, third-grader Violet Albers and Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Stephanie McCaull, of Norwich, Vt., play a word game at the White River School on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction, Vt. McCaull has been with the program for seven years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

While eating her lunch, third-grader Violet Albers and Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Stephanie McCaull, of Norwich, Vt., play a word game at the White River School on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction, Vt. McCaull has been with the program for seven years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

White River School fourth-grader Cooper Clews reads “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” to Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Richard Neugass, of Norwich, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024 in White River Junction, Vt. Because Neugass – who has volunteered for the program for nine years – was losing his voice, the pair decided to switch it up with Clews doing the reading. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

White River School fourth-grader Cooper Clews reads “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” to Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Richard Neugass, of Norwich, Vt., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024 in White River Junction, Vt. Because Neugass – who has volunteered for the program for nine years – was losing his voice, the pair decided to switch it up with Clews doing the reading. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

At the White River School, Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Patty Maxfield, of Lebanon, N.H., and third-grader Sarah Lemire play a word game on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction, Vt. Maxfield has been volunteering with the program for eight years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

At the White River School, Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Patty Maxfield, of Lebanon, N.H., and third-grader Sarah Lemire play a word game on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction, Vt. Maxfield has been volunteering with the program for eight years. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

At the White River School, Susan Caruso reads with first-grader Genevieve O'Connell on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction, Vt. Caruso has volunteered for the Everybody Wins! Vermont program at the school for five weeks. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

At the White River School, Susan Caruso reads with first-grader Genevieve O'Connell on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction, Vt. Caruso has volunteered for the Everybody Wins! Vermont program at the school for five weeks. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

At the White River School, Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Patty Maxfield, of Lebanon, N.H., waits with third-grader Sarah Lemire to go into the classroom where they will read together on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction, Vt. Across the hall are third-grader Violet Albers and Stepanie McCaull, of Norwich, Vt. McCaull has been involved with the program for seven years, Maxfield for eight. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

At the White River School, Everybody Wins! Vermont volunteer Patty Maxfield, of Lebanon, N.H., waits with third-grader Sarah Lemire to go into the classroom where they will read together on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in White River Junction, Vt. Across the hall are third-grader Violet Albers and Stepanie McCaull, of Norwich, Vt. McCaull has been involved with the program for seven years, Maxfield for eight. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-26-2024 1:10 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — At White River School on a Tuesday morning in late January, most of the children put on their hats, mittens and snow pants and headed out to the playground.

But others went in a different direction: downstairs to spend about an hour reading, playing games and enjoying some conversation with their adult mentors through the program Everybody Wins! Vermont.

“I like it because it is fun, and I can get tired of recess,” said third-grader Violet Albers about her time with her mentor, Stephanie McCaull, of Norwich, who has been with the program a total of seven years — save for a break during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the small table before them was Violet’s book choice, “The Tail of Emily Winsnap” by Liz Kessler. There was also the popular Mad Libs word game book and a card game.

“Each card has a picture, and you use the pictures to tell a story,” Violet said.

At the table next to McCaull and Violet were Bradley Driver, a third-grader, and Frank Olmstead, who joined Everybody Wins! a year ago on the recommendation of his wife, who also is a mentor. Spread out on their table were small tiles, each with a letter, and Bradley and Olmstead, of Norwich, who turned them over randomly to try to build words.

Bradley also described his time with Olmstead as “fun.”

“We almost always read and we are trying to complete this log with a list of books,” Olmstead said, opening the folder with the log sheets and book titles, including the “Bad Kitty” series, one on Abraham Lincoln and a Dr. Seuss book.

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White River School has been involved in Everybody Wins! Vermont for about 20 years, which is the longest of any school.

Meghan Riege, Everybody Wins! site coordinator at White River School, said every fall she explains the program to all students in grades one through five. For those who express an interest, she will first obtain a permission slip from a parent or guardian, then speak to the students individually. While some may need help in reading, others are strong readers who want some extra time reading and want a new friend, Riege said. Mentors and mentees are paired for one to five years.

“The mentor/mentee relationship is the foundation of the program,” Riege said. “It is the most important thing, and then the reading. The love of books stems from that engagement with books and the mentors sharing their love of books and the desire to read with kids.”

Teaching children how to read — the responsibility of the teachers and paraprofessionals — is not the mentor’s role, Riege emphasized. “The mentors share their enthusiasm for reading and learning what books the students like. In class, they are told what they will read; we emphasize students choosing what they like to read.”

Ellen Kucera is the program manager for the East region of Everybody Wins! She is restarting programs at Westshire Elementary and Samuel Morey in the Rivendell Interstate School District and in Tunbridge in the First Branch School District, all of which were shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kucera said they are beginning with second-graders, but expect to expand later to include third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.

“We are getting the word out and getting a site manager,” Kucera said, adding that schools interested in the program reach out to Everybody Wins! to begin the process. “There are a lot of little logistics that need to be done. Right now we are actively looking for volunteers.”

Beth Wallace, executive director of Everybody Wins! Vermont, said finding mentors in rural areas can sometimes be a challenge.

“Generally speaking, once people know about the program, it is not that hard to find mentors,” Wallace said. “People really want to help; that has been my experience. They want to help kids, and they understand why reading is really important.”

Before the pandemic, Wallace said they had more than 20 volunteers at Tunbridge Elementary, which now has students in grades K-4.

“In a tiny town like that, we had a mentor for every child who wanted one,” Wallace said.

Wallace said being more empathetic and participating in more extracurricular activities are additional benefits of mentoring.

“What Everybody Wins! does is combine mentoring with literacy,” Wallace said. “So the focus is a friendship between an adult and child during which you read books, explain ideas and have conversations and fall in love with language and stories.”

The love of reading can expand opportunities for children.

“If kids love to read, they will read more, get better at it, and that opens all kinds of worlds for them and they do better in schools,” she said.

Back at White River School, Richard Nuegass, of Norwich, shared his time with fourth-grader Cooper Clews. They read “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” which Cooper described as “pretty funny.”

“I think reading is close to being the most important skill a kid can have,” said Nuegass, who was introduced to the program through the Lions Club in Norwich. “It opens their eyes to the world, and I love telling stories.”

Meanwhile, Patty Maxfield filled in a Mad Libs story and did word searches with Sarah Lemire, a third-grader. Her reasons for becoming a mentor were echoed by others at White River School.

“I love the child I work with, and it is so much fun,” Maxfield, of Lebanon, said. “I always leave here feeling really good.”

Upstairs at White River School, Susan Caruso and Laurie Levinger spent time with their mentees. Caruso, who had a long career in the medical library at the University of Vermont and at Dartmouth’s Baker Library, said she learned about Everybody Wins! on Facebook and began in December.

“I wish I had known about it sooner,” Caruso, of White River Junction, said, reading to Genevieve O’Connell, a first-grader. “I like her, and I like the reading. We made a big jump today. At first she didn’t want to read but now picks out her own book.”

Genevieve held “Dory Fantasmagory: Head in the Clouds,” by Abby Hanlon.

“I read it at my house,” Genevieve said about the book she chose. “It is about a little girl’s imagination and her imaginary friend, a witch.”

Nearby, Levinger, of Norwich, admired a drawing by her student, first-grader Naima Piluszewska, who drew herself twirling on ice skates.

“I get to hang out with Naima; she tells me stories and draws, and I read to her,” Levinger said about why she mentors. “In between reading and drawing, we talk. She tells me about her family and her kittens that live in the garage.”

Wallace said the late U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords, of Vermont, participated in Everybody Wins! while in Washington and brought the program, which was started in New York City, back to his home state. It is limited to Vermont schools now, but when it was first introduced around 2000, Claremont’s Bluff Elementary School joined and has been allowed to continue. Bluff site coordinator Toni Williams, who has been with the program about nine years, said they have 18 mentors for students in third, fourth and fifth grades.

“We are doing well for a small school,” Williams said in the library where five pairs of mentors and children sit together reading and playing games. “The advantage of Everybody Wins! is that it is not just about being a reader but being a buddy. … They really build a relationship and the kids look forward to being here.”

Wallace, the executive director of Everybody Wins!, emphasized the importance of that relationship building.

“Having that experience of being read to by somebody you care about and cares about you is a foundational experience,” Wallace said.

Those interested in learning more about the program and becoming a mentor can visit everybodywinsvermont.org/become-a-mentor. Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.