Racing Readers inspires literacy, fitness and fun

February 01, 2018

It’s after school on a Wednesday and while most students have gone home for the day, 35 children have gathered in an all-purpose room at Newton Elementary school. Their attention is on a Simon Fraser University student, who is showing them some phrases in sign language: “hello,” “my name is,” “how are you.”

Another SFU student asks the kids to recall an incident from the week prior, which sparks a conversation about respect, caring about others’ well-being and feeling comfortable, safe and happy. Journals come out and the children put pen to paper, answering questions such as ‘why is respect important?’ and ‘who deserves it?’ Then it’s off to the gym for a floor hockey challenge.

The elementary and university students are all at the Surrey school for the same reason: Racing Readers, a weekly program that matches youth with university students, who lead sessions that nurture fitness, literacy, numeracy and social connection. The program targets students identified as needing additional support, outside the traditional classroom setting.

Developed through a partnership between the SFU Surrey-TD Community Engagement Centre and Surrey Schools, the program has run since 2014 at Newton Elementary, where there is now a waitlist to participate. It expanded in 2016 to Betty Huff Elementary, where another 30 Surrey students now get together with their university friends each week.

“At Betty Huff, our students thoroughly enjoy the program, and I'm continually amazed at the level of support that is provided by SFU volunteer students,” says principal Kevin M’Lot.

Newton principal Kirpaul Kaur says families “really like the program. We’re so glad that we have it here.”

Since its start, the program has reached more than 300 elementary students. Nearly 130 SFU students have also participated.

A session during B.C.’s recent Family Literacy Week drew rave reviews from students. Grade 5 student Ramandeep is attending Racing Readers for his second year. “I like that the volunteers are really kind and we do a lot of physical activities, using our brains and our bodies.”

His SFU buddy, Jinder Kaler, has been volunteering with the program for a year-and-a-half. “I was looking to help the community,” he says, while helping a young student with journal writing. “I was surprised how much impact it has on the kids. They are easily influenced so it forces you to be the best person you can. I try to be the best mentor.”

Trisha Dulku was an SFU student when the program initially launched and now works as a community projects coordinator at the university. She said from the outset, it was never difficult attracting university volunteers, who are often pursuing careers working with children and want experience, or who simply want to meet more of their university peers.

“It was exciting to see that there were so many SFU students who wanted to get involved in the program,” she recalls.

Gagan Parhar is the program coordinator at the Newton location. She says it’s important for her to be able to give back to students who, like her, may have started school with English as their second language. She also values the opportunity to have open ­– and sometimes deep – conversations with the elementary children.

“Every week there’s something important that we talk about,” she says. And every week, she is rewarded when the kids surprise her with their insight and growth.

Student Ayaan is another big fan of Racing Readers. “I like that there’s a little bit of everything and it’s all enjoyable.” His favourite thing, he says, is the reading ­­– and everything that follows.

“When we’re done reading, we draw something from the book or write about it,” Ayaan says. “I like it, because then you really know what you read.”