Joy Magazine

Smart commitment

Volunteering comes before work for Karen Brkich
Savannah Putnam reads “Ten Little Dinosaurs” with SMART volunteer Claudette Moore at Jackson Elementary School.Mail Tribune file photo

When she began reading to local elementary-school children almost 16 years ago, Karen Brkich immediately knew it was something she wanted to do long-term.

Today Brkich is one of the longest-serving volunteers for the Start Making a Reader Today program in area schools, and she holds down a whopping half-dozen jobs that enable her to continue making a difference in the lives of both students and the volunteers who help make it happen.

Brkich jokes she works full time at working part time. Among her occasional and temporary gigs, she housesits, serves as a nanny, baby-sits, works in a church office and helps out at a wine-tasting room to keep her schedule free for volunteer endeavors.

"I had moved here from California, and I knew I wanted to do something with kids," she says of her introduction to the SMART program. "I saw a little blurb in the editorial page of the newspaper inviting people to come to an orientation at a school," says Brkich.

That visit to Jewett Elementary led Brkich to read to students at schools in both Central Point and White City. Weeks turned into months, and months turned into entire school years.

"It's been such a long time. I can't even remember that far back," says Brkich.

Started in Oregon in 1992 with 585 students in just eight schools, the SMART program serves more than 200 schools across the state with a force of some 10,000 volunteers.

Julie Brimble, SMART area manager, says Brkich is an example of the dedicated volunteers who make SMART a success.

"She once told me she thought her mom probably wished she'd get a grown-up job, but she loves the kids she works with, and she believes in the program and what it accomplishes for students," says Brimble.

Brkich says she feels lucky to be part of something that makes such an impact on children.

"I've been at it for long enough that I'll be out shopping or at a restaurant, and there will be a SMART student who will yell clear across the room when they see me," she says. "It's very rewarding to be able to make such a difference."

"To watch a light go on when a child realizes, or it clicks with them, that they can read, it's just the most amazing thing to watch."

Shuttling between wine-tasting and housesitting, Brkich can't imagine giving up what she says is her real work.

"I've been very fortunate to be able to keep it all going because it would be so hard to give up," she says. "It's such a minimal time ... but the benefits so far outweigh anything people can even imagine."

SMART recruits volunteers for most school districts in the valley. Time commitment is one to two hours per week to start. For more information, call 541-734-5628.

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