ORLANDO – Bob Brown noted that something as simple as teaching a child to read a book, and getting them to truly enjoy doing it, can make a remarkable difference in charting their future.
“It’s a critical learning juncture,” he said. “Kids learn to read in the first grade, and then they read to learn. Kids who don’t learn to read are more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed or underemployed, or to end up on welfare — or in prison.”
What can make the most difference, he added, is not only good schools with excellent teachers, but also mentoring programs that go the extra step and find volunteers willing to work with students to help them develop a love for reading.
Brown is the president and CEO of Heart of Florida United Way, which is partnering with the city of Orlando on the Orlando Cares program, an initiative launched by Mayor Buddy Dyer last March to build on existing volunteer programs that encourage residents, businesses and community groups to get involved in efforts that address youth education and youth crime prevention.
“We hope to create a brighter future for our students, our schools, and all of Central Florida,” Brown said.
Dave Zimbala, a volunteer with the program, agreed with Brown that taking time to show students that adults care about them and want to help guide them to a better future is critical for the region.
“Why mentor? We all want to make a difference, but we don’t know how or where,” he said. “To me, mentioning is the most direct way to do that – and to have an impact.”
Today, Brown, Zimbala and Dyer met at Memorial Middle School to announce that Orlando Cares’ partners – Junior Achievement, Heart of Florida United Way and Orange County Public Schools — were launching two new Cities of Service initiatives called Path Finders and the Interfaith School Turnaround Project, both intended to build on what Orlando Cares has accomplished so far.
“Orlando Cares is an evidence-based, volunteer youth program fostering crime prevention,” Dyer said. “And we’re one of only 20 cities to do this.”
So far, he noted, the program has recruited and trained 300 volunteers, and “We have served more than 800 students.” That includes 555 youth members of the Mayor Buddy’s Book Club.
“Of those, 79 have reported an increase in leisure time reading,” Dyer said. “We all know that well read students are good students.”
In addition to the book club, the city has three other active programs through Orlando Cares: COMPACT, Preschool Ambassadors and The Garden.
Of the two new initiatives, Path Finders is an after-school opportunity for students to learn about themselves and develop a path to a successful future through career exposure, self exploration and academic planning. The Interfaith School Turnaround Project will connect the classroom and interfaith community through tutoring, mentoring and volunteer service to improve student achievement, attendance and behavior.
Craig Polejes, president of Junior Achievement of Central Florida, said Path Finders would be a great way to help students begin thinking about a possible career path.
“Now more than ever, our unique career programs that we provide here to students at Memorial Middle School are critical,” he said. “The gap between the knowledge and skills of employees and the needs of employers must be addressed.”
That’s where mentors come in, he said.
“We look to each of you here as a mentor or a facilitator to help guide our students,” he said.
Zimbala said right now, there simply are not enough mentors involved in these great programs, which need so many more.
“I feel there is a void of mentors in this state,” he said. “We need to counteract that. If we don’t, who will be a role model to our kids?”
That’s why programs like Orlando Cares truly do make a difference, he added.
“I just have so much respect for this organization and all their efforts,” he said.
The Orlando Cares program was made possible through a $200,000 Cities of Service Leadership Grant awarded to Orlando in June 2010, funded jointly by the Rockefeller Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. This grant enabled Orlando to hire a chief service officer, Marcia Hope-Goodwin, responsible for developing and implementing the high-impact service plan. In the ninth months since the program was first launched, she said, there has been a lot of positive accomplishments to celebrate.
“At this time,” she said, “we have a lot of good news to share.”
And, Hope-Goodwin added, the addition of the two new programs should mean more good news to follow next year.
“It’s important to demonstrate this really does make a difference,” she said. “As we know, education is the key.”
To sign on as a volunteer, residents can log on to Orlando Cares.
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