First, Port St. Lucie, battles summer reading slump




Editor's Note: This is the first story in a series about school-church partnerships, one of the Florida Conference's major initiatives. At-risk children across Florida are finding pathways to brighter futures through volunteers reaching out with hearts and prayers.

PORT ST. LUCIE—Students strolled into the media center at their school like they were shopping on Fifth Avenue. They were encouraged to browse and shop for several free chapter books or picture books for the summer reading program.

Each child also was encouraged to put their books in a special place at home.

If children don't read during the summer months, often teachers need multiple weeks of instruction to get them reading at their old grade level, before they can tackle the next phase of literacy.

First United Methodist Church in Port St. Lucie was seeking to build a relationship with Northport K-8 School, a Title I (low-income) public school, also in Port St. Lucie.

Dr. Rad Orlandi, a retired dentist and provisional deacon in the Florida Conference, began a partnership with Northport K-8 School last fall. Along with providing classroom volunteers, FUMC in Port St. Lucie collected 1,005 books for summer reading.

Rad Orlandi, a provisional deacon at the church, and nine others began volunteering at the school, where every student receives free meals.

Then, while attending a school district training event, a friend of Orlandi heard a speaker lament the “summer slump,” when children don't read at home. That spurred the FUMC Port St. Lucie group to begin collecting summer reading books for donation to the school.

Orlandi said he heard that kids learn to read between first and third grades. After that, they read to learn. Those who are not able to read to learn fall behind.

“If we can equip them to be good readers and to feel comfortable with reading and arithmetic, it's going to pay off down the road,” he said.

From the start, the Rev. Gary Upleger, the former senior pastor, supported the group's efforts to help the school, Orlandi said.

It hasn't been easy. Port St. Lucie church members—including Orlandi, his wife Pat and Marlis Spear—sorted through the books and found many that were inappropriate for the lower grade levels. Those were donated to the nearby public library.

“Nothing was wasted,” Orlandi said.

Orlandi said it's likely the project will impact many children who have no books in their homes, many with very busy (and possibly single) parents who are not strong readers. The group hopes to spur an interest in reading among Northport students and parents alike.

“This is a "justice" issue for these children,” the passionate Orlandi said. “You don't get to pick your parents. You don't get to pick your circumstances, and yet they have all this potential.”

Orlandi, director of discipleship ministries at the church, spoke with Lynne Gruszka, the school's media specialist and volunteer coordinator. The church decided to try to collect and donate 750 books for students in the lower grades.

They started the campaign this past spring by asking people to bring age-appropriate books to church, Orlandi said. When the drive was over, they had collected 1,005 books and donated them to the nearby school.

Gruszka organized the books by grade level and created a shopping experience for children to choose books and take them home. They ended up providing books to nearly 500 regular classroom students, along with exceptional student education (ESE) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) students in voluntary prekindergarten through fourth grade.

“The kids were so excited,” the thankful Gruszka said. “They were walking in the halls with the books. They were sharing with the administration and parents. They were all the books that the kids want to read.”

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice

Editor's Note: If your church is currently involved in a school-church partnership or planning to establish one, the Florida Conference would like to share your story. Please contact Doug Long, managing editor at dlong@flumc.org.


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