A Citrus County classroom preceded my United Way career.

I taught elementary school for 11 years before ending that career and starting a new one at United Way.

But I never lost my interest in young children and watching them succeed. That’s why I’m such a big supporter of the United Way of Citrus County’s ReadingPals program.

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ReadingPals, funded with a grant from Publix Charities and the Children’s Movement of Florida, matches adults up with preschool and kindergarten children for one-hour-a-week with a goal to increase their early literacy skills.

These are kids who, despite their young age, are already showing signs of struggling with early learning skills. Reading one-on-one with a child gives him or her a much better ability to succeed.

We partner with the Citrus County School District to make sure we’re getting to the children who need that special personalized attention.

The grant program is measured for success. Reports show that the children who participate in ReadingPals have greater learning gains than those who don’t.

Reading to children fires their imagination and stirs their interest. On the other hand, children who struggle with reading become easily discouraged, withdrawn from others and reluctant to participate.

ReadingPals helps prepare these young minds for school years, helping to ensure they don’t fall behind.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, ReadingPals matched up over 200 volunteers with about 250 pre-K and kindergarten children in Citrus County. This school year, it’s about 60 to 70 children — but we can add more children with more volunteers.

The school district conducts background screenings for volunteers and they are assigned schools and children. Our ReadingPals coordinator, Tiffany Johnson, will give all the training needed.

Who volunteers? In Citrus County, we are blessed with thousands of retirees who miss their grandchildren and see ReadingPals as one way to use their grandparent “skills” on preschool or kindergarten children. Our volunteers are super dedicated and the driving reason why Citrus County ReadingPals continues being one of the top five programs in Florida.

No special skills are needed. United Way provides the curriculum and supplies.

ReadingPals goes beyond the one-one-one reading. The grant pays for books — 25 new books for each child who participates to take home and keep.

And, let’s face it, reading with children is just plain fun. No matter what kind of day I’m having, who’s making me happy and who isn’t, the traffic on the roads or the weather — it all disappears during that one hour I’m reading with my student. To watch a child’s interest, timid at first, grow with each passing hour of reading time, well, it’s hard to describe.

This is one of those feel-good volunteer calls. Doesn’t cost anyone a dime. No heavy lifting. But that hour is priceless to a Citrus County child.

The community’s children need our help. Please give Tiffany Johnson a call at our office, 352-795-5483, to join the effort to help prepare our children for the future they deserve.

Meghan Pitzer is CEO of United Way of Citrus County.

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