Beverly Coronado sits on a bench at a corner of the Ross Elementary School playground during recess, holding a book with a bright yellow bookmark poking out of the top.
The 8-year-old has been reading with her mentor, Justine Gontis, 62, a business consultant with the Peace Corps. The book in her hand is a classic, “A Light in the Attic” by Shel Silverstein.
Beverly is, by now, an accomplished reader, and with Gontis’s help, she has read deeply into the Silverstein canon.
She is one of 87 children at Ross Elementary, in the 1700 block of R Street NW, who are enrolled in a literacy program run by a Everybody Wins! DC. The program, in its 19th year, pairs students in 37 low-income public elementary schools with reading mentors to expose them to children’s literature and inspire them to read.
The program has several mentors who have read with children for more than 10 years. The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) read with students every Tuesday for 14 years.
“If you read to a child you let the child know reading is important and that they’re important,” said Mary Salander, the nonprofit program’s executive director. “The need is enormous.”
Ross Elementary, which has 160 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, will be the sole beneficiary of a $30,000 grant awarded in June to Everybody Wins! DC by The Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund dedicated to increasing the educational opportunities available to disadvantaged children and teens in the Washington region.
More than half of the grant will be used to buy books for students to take home to keep and books for the book cart, which are read at school. The rest will go to pay for materials, liability insurance, the school coordinator’s salary and school events, Salander said.
Citywide, the nonprofit program is providing reading help to 4,500 children this year.
Dylan Reiss-Wilchins, 7, is a second-grader at Ross who reads at a third-grade level. She has been working for two years with her mentor, Chris George, 31, a news page designer at The Post. Dylan said she reads books from the Amelia Bedelia and the Ramona series whenever a new one arrives on the school book cart.
“It’s the best day for me,” Dylan said about Wednesdays, when George goes to the school to read. They take turns reading, and Dylan eats a Lunchable that her mother packs on mentoring days.
Mentors help students sound out words and determine their meaning through context clues.
“She knows all the words,” said Luca Trabocchi, 10, a fourth-grader who transferred to Ross last year, as he looked at his mentor, Brook Padgett, 23, a legal assistant at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Padgett laughed.
“I just really enjoyed reading as a kid, and I enjoy when Luca reads,” Padgett said.
Mentors often volunteer during the lunch hour, and for many, the time includes more than just reading with the child. “I like the environment and the relationship that’s being built through reading,” said Denise Schellin, 55, a legal secretary with Akin Gump. She mentors Camilla Galeotti, 8, a third-grader who has been in the program for 21 / 2 years and enjoys reading Junie B. Jones chapter books.
“It is fun because I didn’t read the same books at their age so it’s a whole new experience,” Schellin said.
The passion for reading that Everybody Wins! DC has instilled in students at Ross Elementary seemed to be expressed by Luca as he clutched a thick chapter book with many dog-eared pages. “Once you get deep into a book,” he said, “you can’t let it go.”