GREENVILLE — Reading is fundamental, a skill that is vital for success, professionally and personally.
Unfortunately, for some people, reading can be a difficult task and a troublesome skill to learn. There are pushes at the state level to improve literacy levels for elementary school students, but the struggles of learning to read are not limited to children. Adults struggle with reading as well, which can perpetuate difficulties in their own children, and so the cycle continues.
The Montcalm Area Reading Council (MARC), which is based at the Flat River Community Library in Greenville, works to improve literacy rates for adults and children.
Jonathan LaFond and Allen Demorest lead the council. LaFond was appointed by the council’s board of directors in February 2016 to be the director of MARC, but he found there was simply too much to be done.
Demorest was appointed as director of operations in November 2016. LaFond said Demorest is more of a “behind-the-scenes” director who keeps things running smoothly while LaFond handles public relations.
“It became apparent to me that this (position) is in two parts. It’s part office work and part outreach,” LaFond said. “There’s so much involved in outreach because of working with the public and working with the school systems … it’s worked out well.”
The goal for MARC is to help children and adults who are struggling to read by offering sessions with tutors to work solely on improving literacy. They do so with activity books and anthologies that match up with curriculum students are already experiencing in schools. MARC also has workbooks and other materials tailored to adults.
“The approach is still the same. It doesn’t change. It’s just the actual reading material that (adults) work on while they’re independently reading (that is different from the children),” Demorest said.
Demorest said it can be “a lot harder” for adults to come into the council’s office and ask for help with improving literacy, but it’s important for them to reach out.
“We talk about how it opens up a whole new world to you,” he said. “If you can read, it opens up a whole new world. Once you learn how to read, you can travel to any country you want in a book … meet any person you want in a book. It’s going to let you read to your children.”
Whether for a child or for an adult, the tutoring sessions tend to be structured the same. Students learn from tutors who have undergone a total of 10 hours of training in literacy tutoring. Those 10 hours of training are accomplished over the course of several days that are sometimes spaced out through a few months or over the course of a weekend, depending on the number of tutors to be trained. If there are more people to be trained, then training sessions are longer but there are fewer of them.
Without tutors willing to volunteer their time, LaFond said that MARC would not be able to function effectively. He said tutors are “the lifeblood” that keeps the council functioning in a way that improves literacy rates in Montcalm County.
“Our tutors are our most valuable resource. Without the tutors, we have nothing,” LaFond said. “They’re giving of their talents, their resources and their personal experience without asking for anything back but the satisfaction of helping another person.”
In previous years, MARC has focused not only improving literacy rates but helping adults who were hoping to prepare to take their General Educational Development (GED) test and those who were learning English as a second language. According to LaFond, in recent years the board of directors has chosen to scale back and focus on improving literacy rates in the county.
“Our board of directors felt it was advantageous for us to focus on just a couple of areas and to do them very well,” LaFond said.
For students, MARC works closely with teachers and staff in Greenville’s four elementary schools to determine what the needs of the children are and how they can build on what students are already learning in school. They focus more on students in kindergarten through third grade to make sure students aren’t falling behind.
Due to recent legislation, students in the third grade who aren’t up to a third grade reading level have to repeat the grade in order to improve their reading. That’s something LaFond hopes to work on with students so they aren’t in danger of being held back.
LaFond and Demorest are working together to be able to provide statistics on literacy rates in Montcalm County and to use that information to show how things can improve.
“(We want to give) updated facts about what is going on right now and where the community is going with regard to literacy,” LaFond said. “If we don’t have a high quality of literacy, everything else pales in comparison… We feel as tutors and board members that this is of the utmost importance to this community.”
While MARC is headquartered at the Greenville library, LaFond said literacy is a priority for people all across the county and that he’s hopeful they will be able to branch out and reach more people throughout the area as the organization grows.
Anyone interested in volunteering can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (616) 754-6359. Hours of operation for MARC are from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.