The girl and the woman study the lunch tray. A mound of tired cole slaw. A potato-like substance. Something mysterious hidden beneath a blanket of tomato sauce. A popsicle for dessert.
"Are you going to eat any of this?" the woman asks.
The girl, of course, begins lunch with the popsicle.
It's all part of the affectionate ritual that Angie Hunter and 11-year-old Iesha Little have established over four years of weekly meetings at Walker Jones Elementary in Northwest Washington. Hunter prods the lanky, athletic girl to eat something more than dessert. She reads to Iesha and gets her to read. She tries--in subtle and not-so-subtle ways--to show that Iesha's lunch habits, education and life matter to her.
Iesha, in turn, gives up recess once a week to sit with Hunter and read.
Hunter and Iesha were put together by Everybody Wins, a program that matches children and adults for lunchtime reading lessons. It has been bringing volunteers into Washington schools since 1995 and currently serves about 2,800 youngsters in 19 schools. There are 1,600 reading mentors in 10 schools and a separate group of storytellers who make monthly visits to nine other schools.
At Walker Jones, during a typical get-together, Iesha and Hunter talk about what Iesha did over the weekend. ("I was playing. I had all my sleep.") Then they methodically begin working through a book.
"Or-or . . . " stumbles Iesha.
"Organized," prompts Hunter.
And then, "Sc-sc . . . "
"Owl--you know that word," says Hunter. "Now add 'sc.'"
Hunter nods. Word by word, they make their way.
Hunter works in human resources at C-Span, one of the first businesses to join Everybody Wins. A devoted reader ("If I have four magazines and a newspaper, I'm in heaven."), she volunteered because "I always felt I wanted to be involved, I should do more."
Everybody Wins, which was launched in New York and has spread to 20 cities, was designed for people like Hunter: professionals who want to do something but do not have room in their lives for a major commitment. The reading mentors are, in fact, not allowed to get together with the children outside of the carefully monitored school environment--the charity's liability insurance doesn't cover such meetings.
Still, although the relationships between reading partners are circumscribed, the bonds are strong.
"You get so attached. It's really an extra-special thing for me," says Hunter. "Just to see her reading better, to see her trying. . . . That one-on-one interaction every week, it helps, well, it helps me."
Organizers are certain that the program helps the children as well, and teachers and principals say participants seem to have more regular school attendance and to behave better in class.
More than 40 corporations and organizations, including the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, AT&T and The Washington Post, help Everybody Wins with donations and by encouraging employees to sign up as reading mentors. Students who need help are referred by teachers, but participation is strictly voluntary.
In each school, Everybody Wins hires a school mother as a part-time coordinator, someone who knows the school and the other parents and can help ease the way for the volunteers. This also has provided new opportunities for the parent-coordinators.
"I've seen women who are unemployed or underemployed who would not even think about public speaking come in, work with companies and individuals and . . . become phenomenal professionals," says Judy Morse, a reading partner who now works with Everybody Wins as a consultant.
Mary Silander, deputy director of Everybody Wins, says the group is working with the U.S. Department of Education on a survey to measure students' changes in such areas as interest in reading, attention span and listening skills. But some of the benefits, Silander thinks, will be hard to quantify.
"What you end up having here," she says, "is a special adult in a child's life who comes over once a week and says, 'You're special, you're fantastic, you're reading well.' "
Such programs are valuable supplements to regular school, says Carol Santa, language arts administrator for a school district in Montana and president of the International Reading Association, which promotes literacy.
"Our classes are so big," she says of American schools, "children don't have that much opportunity to work one-on-one. Learning to read is like learning to play basketball or tennis. The more you practice with an expert, the more an expert can help you. . . . It's even more important than reading on your own."
Everybody Wins has a waiting list of schools and children, says Silander, and is seeking more volunteers.
With summer near, the reading will stop for a few months. But come September, Hunter plans to be back at Walker Jones with Iesha. They will be reading.
CAPTION: Marquis Hubert, 8, wears volunteer Marshall Macomber's jacket after a reading session at Walker Jones Elementary.
CAPTION: Tiara Hooper, 11, reads to Susan Dunnings at Walker Jones Elementary School. Dunnings, a volunteer with Everybody Wins, a nonprofit reading program, joins Tiara for lunch and reading each week. Tiara is one of 2,800 students in Washington who are paired with mentors through the program.