Fraternity reaches out to give children a good start on reading

UO student reading to children at a playground

Graham Parker was a little nervous the first time he showed up at Bascom Village last spring with an armload of children’s books, fresh from a crash course on working with preschoolers.

A UO student and member of the Delta Upsilon fraternity, Parker and his fraternity brothers had volunteered to set up and staff weekly reading sessions for children of the low-income apartment complex’s residents. The idea was to make sure these kids start school just as ready to learn as any other children.

But this was new territory for Parker and his fellow volunteers, and they weren’t sure what to expect.

“Going into the first session I was nervous but also excited, and all the nervousness went away once I started reading,” he said. “I was expecting the kids to be bouncing off the walls, but they were mostly calm and ready to read.”

Parker and the fraternity kept at it, nursing the program through the slow summer months. The number of children taking part gradually grew, and they’re seeing up to 20 children or more at each session, enough that they’re starting to look for help keeping up with demand.

“The number of kids is growing, so the number of volunteers needed is growing as well,” Parker said.

The project is one of the many ways UO students give back to their community and help others. Parker and his fraternity brothers hope that by spending time both reading to kids and helping them read on their own, they can help reduce the achievement gap that exists between the children of more affluent families and those with few resources.

The idea for the sessions originated with visiting UO professor of business management Bill Starbuck, who retired to Eugene from New York University 11 years ago and now does some teaching at the UO’s Lundquist College of Business. He got interested in ways of helping people rise out of homelessness and poverty and learned that a solid education, starting in the preschool years, is one of the key factors that reduce the chances a person will end up living on the street.

That led him to St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, which signed on to help launch the reading program. Bascom Village is a St. Vincent project with 50 apartments for lower-income residents; the Lane County housing agency is building an adjoining complex with another 50 apartments that will be completed soon.

Starbuck then went looking for a campus group that not only would be interested in working with children but that also had the ability to manage the program and stick with it. He connected with Delta Upsilon, a newer fraternity just recently recognized by the university, and found what he was looking for.

Fraternity members not only volunteered, they created the whole program and manage it themselves.

“They took over the idea and ran with it,” Starbuck said. “And they have made it a success.”

Parker said credit also goes to UO professor Franklin Bender in the College of Education. He helped prepare fraternity members to work with young children on their reading.

Starbuck said he’s very happy to see how the fraternity has embraced the project. He said they’re not only helping children get a leg up on their education but also setting an example.

“Having boys from a fraternity show up and be examples of healthy, clean-cut males is itself an educational thing,” he said. “The kids are thrilled that these adults are paying attention to them.”

Parker said the group plans to stick with it. He’s talked to a UO sorority about helping out, and they’re trying to round up more books. Each child gets to pick a book to keep and take home after each session, so there’s no end to the need for books.

“To anyone who is wondering why they should get involved, I would say this is a great way to help a child grow,” he said. “It has tremendous benefits.”

—By Greg Bolt, University Communications

Those wishing to donate children’s books to help the program can contact Parker at grahamp@uoregon.edu.