JOY Readers Program Connects Young and Old at Thomas Jefferson Elementary

In 2013, Carole Devey Schachter, then an ESOL Specialist at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in the Bethlehem Area School District, was looking for a way to increase reading practice for her English Learners.

She thought that having the students read aloud to someone would increase their fluency and confidence as well as their love of reading. Carole came up with the idea of having senior citizens living at Moravian Village (where her parents and other friends lived) go to Thomas Jefferson to listen to her 2nd grade English Learners read. She talked the idea over with Jack Burke, retired BASD principal living at Moravian Village, and Sue Lorenzetti, who schedules activities at Moravian Village. Carole met with residents, they signed up, and were partnered with students.

The program was named JOY Readers – Joining Old & Young.

At the beginning, there were just 5 or 6 readers. As the program quickly grew, Carole asked the second-grade teachers if all of the 2nd graders might be interested in participating. The teachers enthusiastically agreed!

The program has continued to grow. The JOY Readers now visit Thomas Jefferson about twice every month. Some days as many as 15 senior citizens travel to TJ. The students take turns reading with the senior citizens. Depending on how many volunteers attend, each senior citizen reads with three or four children. The students form a bond with the adults with whom they read. The ESOL teacher works to keep seniors with the same student. The senior citizens help the children with words if they are having trouble, and the pairs discuss the stories, which helps to improve the students’ comprehension.

The past few years, the JOY Readers and the students have gathered at the end of the school year to celebrate the friendships they have formed. The children walk to Moravian Village for a special program and lunch. The seniors help their students make crafts and all enjoy a presentation from an invited guest, such as a naturalist from Hawk Mountain. Then they share a delicious lunch served in the dining room, which the students declare looks like a fancy restaurant! The day ends after the children present their JOY Readers with handmade mementos of their wonderful year together!

To many seniors, reading with the students is the highlight of the month. It is to many children, too. Two special stories illustrate the importance of these visits. One day, a little boy ran after the JOY Readers as they were getting on the bus. As the teacher came flying after him, he said, “I have to see Mrs. Besecker, I forgot to give her a hug goodbye!” Another boy returned to his classroom after his very first time reading with a senior. His teacher noticed that he was looking very sad and asked him what was wrong. He answered with tears in his eyes, “I didn’t want to stop reading with Mrs. Helman!” The teacher assured him that he would be able to read with Mrs. Helman again in two weeks. His countenance changed to one of pure joy.

The JOY Reader program has changed in small ways over the past six years. Mrs. Schachter has moved to a new position in the district and Mrs. Anastasia Wrobel is now the ESOL teacher who works with Miriam Devey and Sue Lorenzetti from Moravian Village to coordinate the program. Volunteers have changed over the years, as some are no longer able to come, but new ones always step in to take their place. Sometimes only a couple of second grade students are English Learners. What has remained the same throughout its history is that the JOY Reader program continues to be a beautiful community partnership that joins old and young together and truly brings joy to each and every one involved.