Faculty and Staff Volunteer at Neighboring Hibbard Elementary School


CHICAGO, IL (February 16, 2007) – Mary Miller, an administrator at North Park Theological Seminary, sat on the hard yellow plastic chair that had legs barely more than a foot high and had a "Power Lunch" with Jerry over Green Eggs and Ham.

Mary is one of the 52 faculty and staff from North Park University participating in a pilot project to read to 28 third-grade students from 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. every Tuesday at Hibbard Elementary School, a Chicago Public School adjacent to the south side of North Park's campus. The three-week-old program is slated to run through June.

University faculty and staff have volunteered to participate in the project, which is organized by Working in the Schools (WITS), a literacy organization that increases the reading proficiency and learning capacity of low-income and minority students in Chicago Public Schools. The volunteers take turns each week or fill in when one person can't make it. They are teamed with a particular student for the duration of the project.

"A lot of these kids don't get that kind of attention at home, so it's good for them to get that kind of attention here,” said Rita Olsen, Hibbard's reading and curriculum coordinator. With increasing success, the school is working with parents to read to their children at home.

"Nearly all of the students at Hibbard speak English as a second language, and 94 percent live at or below the poverty level," Olsen said. Many of the parents do volunteer at the school in various capacities.

The children huddled at the short desks with their mentors and eagerly replaced one book after another as each was read. "The kids are really excited," Olsen said of the program. "They look forward to the volunteers coming. It’s really special to them."

The volunteers also are enjoying the experience. "We're having a lot of fun," said Anne Hawkinson, of her time with Eduardo.

Hawkinson, the senior technology coordinator at North Park, immediately knew she wanted to participate when the opportunity arose. Her sister had volunteered in a similar program in Washington D.C.

Rob Sills, a residence director at North Park, has always enjoyed working with teens, but wanted to try something different. "What made this appealing was personally being able to reach out to the younger kids," he said.

The project at Hibbard is unique. Other partnerships have always involved loading employees of a participating company onto a bus and then transporting them to a school. "This is the first walking program," Olsen said. She sheepishly noted that the volunteers had been subjected to increasing worse weather each of the first three weeks. Wind chills were below zero on Tuesday.

The walk was worth braving the elements. As the third-graders filed out of the classroom, they all shouted, "Thanks for reading!"