For the kids' sake

Red Flyer Reading Program volunteer coordinator Jean Duffy looks over a writing assignment with South Whidbey Intermediate School fourth-grader Hayleigh Hopkins. The Red Flyer volunteers give countless hours each year to tutoring at the intermediate school.<p> - Cynthia Woolbright
Red Flyer Reading Program volunteer coordinator Jean Duffy looks over a writing assignment with South Whidbey Intermediate School fourth-grader Hayleigh Hopkins. The Red Flyer volunteers give countless hours each year to tutoring at the intermediate school.

— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

Fifteen to 20 minutes. That is all it takes to help change the life of a child. It is also what a group of people on South Whidbey have found it takes to make them young again.

“Interaction with 10-year-olds is so positively enthusiastic and charming — it’s the most beautiful moment I spend in the week, and that’s not just drivel,” said Malcolm Ferrier, a volunteer coordinator for the Red Flyer Math Program.

There is a devoted bunch of volunteers who visit the South Whidbey schools daily, weekly and monthly. Many of the volunteers have children, but they have long been grown adults themselves. Many of them have grandchildren, but they are off in a school district somewhere else.

The Red Flyer Reading Program was founded in 1995 by Delores Fresh, while the Red Flyer Math Program founded in 1999 by Malcolm Ferrier. Volunteers with the two groups claim affiliation to a little red wagon and a devotion to the education of children.

Both programs bring in tutors to the school to help students with math or reading, essentials for life according to the volunteers.

“If you can’t read you can’t get a job. If you can’t read you can’t get a higher education. If you can’t read and comprehend, how are people supposed to get through life,” said Jean Duffy, volunteer coordinator for the Red Flyer reading program.

Ferrier said he began the Red Flyer Math Program after doing some tutoring at South Whidbey High School. He found himself doing “desperation repair work” with the students.

“I was attempting to work with kids on their algebra but was realizing they often didn’t understand the basic concepts of arithmetic,” he said. “I knew a program such as this would be better focused on grades three through five to give students a strong foundation.”

The Red Flyer programs — while separate — are funded by community donations, not the school district, according to Jean Duffy.

The Red Flyer Reading Program has an average of around two dozen volunteer tutors helping around 70 students each year. The math program has been consistent with eight volunteers since it started and is always in need of more.

Teachers outline what they hope the tutors can work with the student on — reading, writing or a specific issue in math — and the tutors set out to make it fun.

“Not knowing exactly what they are studying in class, we tend to work outside of the box,” said Red Flyer math volunteer John Ferguson. “It’s just enjoyable to help stimulate the thinking.”

New this year is a lunchtime program organized by Ferrier called the Math Maniacs. Ferrier and other math volunteers come to the school once a week at lunch time and set up all sorts of logic games for the kids to get their minds stirred even more.

“We like to challenge the kids any way we can,” Ferrier said.

Home base for the Red Flyer Reading Program is room 210 of South Whidbey Intermediate School. The room is comfy. There are couches to slouch on, desks to practice writing at and lots of fun books to read. The reading program has a library of 300 over books and each year more are purchased to update the shelves and keep the learning fresh.

Tutors for both programs come into the school weekly to work with students, and during that brief 15 to 20 minutes the students have with their mentors, there’s more to be learned than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Ferrier said half the value of the work the Red Flyer volunteers do is simply being there.

“They’re here all the time so they’ve really gotten to know the volunteers,” said fourth-grade teacher Marge Carter. “The kids really look forward to them coming. One-on-one of any kind is so beneficial to a child.”

A former teacher, Jean Duffy said she saw kids who fell through the cracks sitting in the back of the room, hoping no one would notice they couldn’t read the words on the books in front of them. She says the tutors can help be an emotional and education safety net for the students.

“Home environments are sometimes tough, socialization is rough and peer pressure and the school crowd can be stress factors on academics,” Duffy said. “If you expect things of children they will happen over time. They all need attention and a challenge.”

Red Flyer Reading volunteer Marion Howard has been a community volunteer for 40 years, giving back time to every town in which she’s ever lived. Now it doesn’t matter whether it’s at Good Cheer, in the school district, or with the Senior Center’s Time together program — she feels the need to help and says others should do the same.

“I love seeing them grow and their confidence increase,” Howard said. “When you see them the next year they plow through the door to give you a big hug and nearly knock you over.”

The differing backgrounds and expertise of the volunteers are an education in itself — some are former engineers, teachers, and other blue collar workers. They all have stories to tell and wisdom to pass along.

This week Ferrier was a guest lecturer at the Bayview School. Ferrier, like many of the other Red Flyer volunteers, doesn’t limit himself to one class, one school or even one subject matter.

Thursday he was talking to students in Scott Mauk’s class at Bayview about natural capitalism and eco-economy. Ferrier will spend the next couple of weeks lecturing to the class on the topic, evoking questions and thought, and possibly guiding some projects.

“We have to realize the environment provides enormous and irreplaceable services for us,” Ferrier said. “We have to realize we have to do things to preserve versus destroy.”

Long after the lecture had ended and the class dispersed to its next study period, Ferrier walked down the hall and a young man stopped him. The young man shook his hand and thanked Ferrier for his lecture, telling Ferrier he too shared the same eco-conscious vision of economics.

“That’s the way we’re going and the way it should be,” the young man said.

As Ferrier walked away he had a new spring to his step. A smile beamed through the cold air.

“See, that is what this is about,” he said. “Those connections are priceless.”

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