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Teaching kids to read so they can read to learn

Editor’s Note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Karen Brkich, who has been a SMART reader and coordinator for nearly a quarter century.

Q: You’ve been a SMART (Start Making A Reader Today) reader and coordinator for 24 years. What influenced you to get involved in reading to children?

Karen: Since I was a child, I’ve loved reading. I was introduced to books at a very young age and realized I could go anywhere through books. My mind is alive when I read, and I’ve had a love of books and reading ever since.

Q: What does having a SMART reader do for children? What have you seen?

Karen: It’s such a benefit not only for the students, but also for the readers. We volunteer for one hour a week by reading half an hour each with two students. It is based on one-on-one interactions, so the students have someone committed to coming and spending time with them. And the social connection can often be greater than the reading help by developing a relationship with your students over the course of the SMART school year.

Q: Why is reading so important?

Karen: There is a quote that says, “From birth to third grade you’re learning to read. From third grade on you’re reading to learn.” It’s very important that kids learn to read from a young age so they don’t have difficulty during the time they are reading to learn. I do see students who don’t like reading mostly because they don’t think of themselves as good readers. This is a way for us to encourage them, help turn that thinking around, and show them books can be fun and interesting. SMART readers are sharing their love of reading with them and helping students to realize they’re going to be reading the rest of their lives. It is very important to get kids reading at an early age.

Some of our students don’t get that bedtime story, so we replicate that, to a degree, with them. Each session should be a positive and successful half hour with us so it’s usually a combination of us reading aloud to them, the student reading to us, and quite often it’s shared reading with reader and student taking turns. We read aloud to them so they can hear the fluency of the language and the correct pronunciations of words.

Q: You recently won Oregon recognition as SMART’s outstanding volunteer of the year.

Karen: I was humbled to be honored. I went up to Portland to a big fundraising event to receive the award. Even though I don’t usually like the spotlight, it was a great night of celebrating SMART. I am amazed by the support of people involved with SMART, those who donate their time and those who give financially. SMART is a volunteer-driven nonprofit that really puts the money into program, providing books and materials for students, parents, teachers, readers and coordinators.

I just want to share the award with all of my volunteer readers over the years. Our program has one of the highest retention rates of volunteers (80%), and they come back year after year; and thankfully, I’m there with them. It’s been great, and I plan to continue as long as I’m able.

Q: What rewards do you get from SMART?

Karen: My reward is knowing I’m doing something important to help children. Prior to getting involved with SMART, I found out I could not have children of my own, so it was important to me to find something where I could spend time with kids and feel as though I was making a difference. SMART covers that. It’s simple, it’s fun — you never know what kids are going to say. Building relationships with the volunteers is great, and we become a family. We’re the SMART family, and we say “it’s great to be SMART.”

My very first day, a kindergarten girl that I was assigned sang me a book of nursery rhymes, which tugged at my heartstrings, and I’ve been hooked on SMART ever since. It’s a wonderful program to be involved with, and I’ve been greatly rewarded.

Q: Tell me your favorite fun story about a kid in the SMART program.

Karen: I have two that come to mind. A retired physician who became a SMART reader came to me saying his second-grade student was refusing to read any books with girls in them. So, I collected all the books without girls, which they read over the course of a couple of months, and then they went back to reading any book — girls included. And a first-grader who told me, “I’m going to be a doctor AND a SMART reader when I grow up.” I encouraged her to do both.

Q: Are you from Southern Oregon?

Karen: I was born and raised in Southern California and was in sixth grade when my dad transferred to the Bay Area. I then lived in San Francisco for 10 years before moving here. It was a bit of a change moving from a city to a more rural area, but I’ve enjoyed it here and have some of my family nearby now too.

Q: Are you involved in other activities in the community?

Karen: I got involved with SMART not too long after I moved here, and have been with them ever since. It’s worked out well to be involved with them and also help other nonprofit organizations such as Kids Unlimited, Central Neighborhood Church, the Literacy Council, Southern Oregon Humane Society, Age-Friendly Innovators (now Rebuilding Together Rogue Valley), and currently I’m working seasonally at the Britt Music & Arts Festival box office, who make it possible by being flexible with my SMART schedule.

Q: Is there something about you that most people don’t know?

Karen: In my younger days, I played the piano but regret not keeping up with it. When I moved here, I took didgeridoo lessons, and that is now my instrument. I’m also interested in learning to play the saw. My didgeridoo teacher in Ashland was from Holland and he had learned to play from an Aboriginal Australian in England. I still have not mastered it to the 30- to 45-minute level of continuous breathing, but that’s one of my goals. Ruch Elementary had an after-school enrichment program in the past where community members would come and give classes. I went a couple of years with PVC pipe didgeridoos for the kids to creatively paint, taught them the history of the instrument, some breathing techniques and how to play. I’m hoping some continued on in their pursuit of the daunting didgeridoo.

Q: Does SMART need more volunteer readers?

Karen: Yes, always. I encourage everyone who likes to read and likes kids and wants to help — to be SMART. Our programs run from mid-October to mid-May. Even if you’re hesitant because you might travel, people are able to find substitutes, a friend or family member who can come in when you’re not there. We definitely need readers every single school year, and we also need coordinators. These are volunteer positions, but you’ll get so much out of it. It will be the quickest hour of your week, I guarantee.

Q: How many schools in Southern Oregon are you involved with?

Karen: Through the program I’ve worked at seven schools and substituted at many more. In Jackson/Josephine counties SMART is in 38 schools. We have about 700 volunteers serving over 1,300 students.

Q: And SMART provides students with books?

Karen: Yes, SMART is also a book program. The students get two new books each month that they select to take home and keep. They put their names in them and take them home to share with their family. In some homes, there may not be a lot of reading material or books of their own, so that’s another very important component of SMART — getting books to kids. Last year Rogue Valley SMART students received about 18,000 books.

Q: Who or what influenced you to become a volunteer?

Karen: When I was young, my brothers and I were involved in a variety of scouting organizations, and both my parents took part as scout leaders. My mom was involved with our school PTA and my grandparents were involved with various organizations as well. We participated in a lot of community activities. In junior high I would go with a group of my friends to an assisted-living facility to just visit with people there. I also used to babysit and help families through my high school years. I have definitely found opportunities to help people over the years and that is something I just respond to on a human level.

Q: What’s clearer to you now?

Karen: [Laughter] not my eyesight! I believe it’s very important to never lose your positivity, to always look to see if there is a situation that can be improved, or something can be provided. We are all in need of something. And people coming together to make a positive difference is a powerful thing. It’s much clearer now how volunteering in our communities can uplift everyone involved, that we all benefit, and the giver can get just as much out of it as the receiver.

Q: What do you think would make Southern Oregon a better place to live?

Karen: I know what would make the world a better place. My greatest wish is that every child would grow up having a happy childhood. If that were to happen, if that could ever be possible, the world would be such a better place.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

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Karen Brkich bio

Karen Brkich’s passion for reading and desire to be of help to children coincided with her learning about SMART Reading and led to her involvement for the past 24 years. She was born and raised in California but has lived in Southern Oregon for 25 years. Karen has worked as an office administrator for a contractor, tech company recruiters, a law school and the Rogue Valley wine industry. A variety of part-time jobs now keeps her busy. She looks forward to many more years as SMART coordinator and invites others to “be SMART” too. Call Rogue Valley SMART Reading at 541-734-5628 to inquire about volunteering or making a donation.

Karen Brkich, has been a Smart Reader and coordinator for 24 years. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune