With school districts across the state facing the likelihood of more budget cuts, the SMART reading program is reaching out to increase its volunteer base to ensure all students who need help with reading get it.

With school districts across the state facing the likelihood of more budget cuts, the SMART reading program is reaching out to increase its volunteer base to ensure all students who need help with reading get it.

While volunteer options for various organizations run the gamut from grueling and time-consuming to occasional and pain free, volunteers with the SMART program in Jackson and Josephine counties say their particular gig could be the best-kept secret in the Rogue Valley.

"People are really missing the boat if they're not doing this," said SMART volunteer Barbara Finnie of Gold Hill.

One of more than 700 volunteer readers for the Rogue Valley chapter of SMART — or, Start Making A Reader Today — Finnie said she gets as much out of the experience, if not more, than the students she reads to and with each week.

Started in Oregon in 1992 with just eight schools, the program has grown to serve nearly 7,500 students in kindergarten through third grade in more than 220 schools across the state. The Rogue Valley SMART program currently provides readers for nearly 1,000 students in 28 schools.

The program has had its own budget challenges. In 2008, a budget cut trimmed $1 million and the program converted from paid coordinators in schools to using volunteers to coordinate. The program receives no tax support outside of a small tax contribution in the Portland area.

Sam Baldwin, a Talent resident who discovered the program during a course at Southern Oregon University, started coordinating the program at Ashland's Helman Elementary and — after a three-year hiatus following the budget cuts in 2008 — at Medford's Griffin Creek.

Baldwin said, for volunteers, the time commitment is trivial compared with the reward of helping young readers.

In a nutshell, volunteers spend one hour per week reading for 30-minute sessions to each of two students, who also receive books to take home. The program runs from October through May.

Volunteers need no expertise to participate, just the ability to read. The help pays off: An independent study by the Eugene Research Institute showed that fifth-graders who participated in SMART were 60 percent more likely to reach state reading benchmarks than students who did not participate.

Aside from helping students become better readers, Baldwin said, the program helps with social behaviors and provides books to kids who might not have much access otherwise. School districts also benefit from having community members visit the schools regularly.

"Certainly a big part of SMART is that mentor component," Baldwin said. "It's pretty neat for a kid to realize they've got this community member coming to school just to hang out and read with them."

Finnie said both helping children become lifelong readers and being a mentor is a win-win for volunteers and students.

"The progress with the kids is tremendous. A little girl I've been reading with came in last week saying none of the books were hard enough for her — and this little girl was hardly reading at the beginning of the year"

She added, "They just tested her at the middle of the year she was reading at a fourth-grade level."

Karen Amarotico, an Ashland resident who volunteers at Helman Elementary, has been a SMART volunteer for 12 years between time spent in Portland and more recently in the Rogue Valley.

Amarotico said the program is important for reading and the interaction with students.

"The most important thing is you are showing these kids that you are a responsible adult and you show up," said Amarotico. "Yeah, you can read and those cool things, too, but you show up and they can depend on you.

"I used to think we were there to teach them to read, but I think it's more about trying to make reading a fun thing or being someone they can tell a story to or share something with each week.

"And I can't imagine a better volunteer activity," she added. "One hour a week and you get to make a difference in the life of a child."

To volunteer or for more information, call the Rogue Valley SMART office at 541-734-5628 or see www.getsmartoregon.org.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.