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Southmoreland teacher knows importance of reading with a Buddy

| Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Paul Paterra | The Independent-Observer
Southmoreland High School junior Abby Melillo pairs with first-grade student Brandon Davison.
Paul Paterra | The Independent-Observer
Southmoreland High School junior Jordan Grimm (dressed as Humpty Dumpty) reads to students at Southmoreland Primary Center as part of the Reading Buddy Program.

Jenna Hixson has long realized the importance of books in the life of a young person.

In her role as a language arts teacher at Southmoreland High School she implements an annual literacy project. When trying to come up with one this school year, a few avenues were explored. These included collecting about 1,200 books for The Tribune-Review's Operation Santa Claus (although they were not accepted since the Tribune-Review had already distributed its books for the 2012 Christmas drive.)

“Little did I know this moment of disappointment was a blessing in disguise,” Hixson said.

After donating 150 books to Children's Hospital in memory of Ian Hixson, who died in January after his battle with Cerebral Palsy, a new direction was taken.

That would be the Reading Buddy Program.

“Every Friday, I walk approximately 30-50 high school students to the primary center after school to volunteer time reading and practicing sight words with kindergartners and first graders,” Hixson said. “I started small hoping to have 10 volunteers a week, (recently), I had to turn readers away once I realized over 50 kids had come to my room to sign up. I have had so many special moments while teaching at Southmoreland High School, but standing back and watching my high school students instinctually know what a child needs to feel special and want to read, surpasses any experience by far. It has moved me to tears.”

It also has had quite an effect on the high school students who have gotten involved in the program.

On a recent Friday, junior Jordan Grimm was dressed as Humpty Dumpty as he read to a captive audience at the Primary Center.

Junior Joseph Crawford said he has become friends with his “reading buddy,” a first-grader named Jonathon. His love of kids was a driving force behind getting involved.

“It seemed like a fun thing to do,” Crawford said. “The smile on their faces is reward enough. I have the same little buddy almost every time and we're like best friends now. He surprised me, he was reading the entire book to me. It was awesome. It blows my mind that this many people care enough to come down here, devote their time and dedicate it to these kids.”

Abby Melillo, a junior, was taking time recently to work one on one with Brandon Davison. She said Hixson's positive influence was key to becoming a reading buddy.

“I just love having her as a teacher and (her) starting the program,” Melillo said, adding that reading to the children is an awesome experience.

Davison answered in the affirmative when asked if he enjoyed having Melillo read to him.

Hixson shared a story from a teacher at the primary center who said this student typically does not like to read, but his time with Crawford was extremely enjoyable, leading the primary center student to say he wished Crawford was his brother.

Courtney Shields, a student teacher at the high school, has enjoyed what she's seen in the “Reading Buddy” program.

“I love reading. I love working with these kids,” Shields said. “It's amazing to see their reaction about having someone to read with. It melts my heart. I honestly had tears in my eyes the first time I was here. I think it's amazing. They love giving up their Friday afternoon, which is sort of uncommon.”

Primary center reading specialists — Amy Pushkis and Patty DeBiasio — have partnered with Hixson in this endeavor. It was kind of spurred on participation in Read Across America.

More than 50 high school students spent a Friday night volunteering at the primary center, teaching children the importance of reading.

“I think it's wonderful we have high schoolers who are willing to volunteer their time and be good role models for reading for our kids,” DeBiasio said.

“They get real excited. You can just the look in their eyes how excited they are,” added Pushkis of the primary center students. “It's also nice some of the same high school kids come down and pair up with the same (children) week after week. They really establish a relationship with them.”

Also on the agenda is having more than 50 high school students join to write a book featuring a Scottie dog on a joruney to learn that he and all “puppies” are special. The book will then be read by 100 high school students to 100 kindergartners and first graders. An additional 50 children with terminal illnesses will receive a copy of the book as a gift to the “Give Kids the World” program.

Hixson also has been tickled by the numerous donations the project has received. She has applied for grants from the state education association to buys specific books that focus on building basic literacy skills.

“This program is absolutely wonderful,” Hixson said. “Every one of my students now wants to go read with a high school buddy.”

Paul Paterra is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-887-6101 or