Read and Feed takes learning to kids

Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — On Monday evenings, 20 students and parents from Northwoods Elementary School in Cary climb aboard a 38-foot recreational vehicle parked in the school’s parking lot for an hour of food, learning and fun.

On Tuesday evenings, the mobile classroom visits the Green Spring Valley mobile-home development in Raleigh to host students and parents from Ballentine Elementary School in Fuquay-Varina.

And on Wednesday evenings, the RV visits Dowling Ridge, a community off Poole Road in Raleigh developed by Habitat for Humanity of Wake County that is home to students and parents from elementary schools throughout the county.

The mobile classroom is sponsored by Read and Feed, a nonprofit founded and headed by Jan Elmo, who retired in 2001 as a business director at Reichold Chemical in Durham.

“I found I wanted something more,” she says.

In 2002, Elmo began volunteering at Northwoods Elementary though the Hand in Hand tutoring program sponsored by First United Methodist Church in Cary.

“I soon found out the children I was tutoring, especially in kindergarten, did not know their alphabet or numbers,” she says.

So she talked to educators in the Wake schools about the need for reading resources, and visited Virginia and Maryland to learn about mobile-classroom programs offered there.

After receiving 501(c)3 charitable status from the Internal Revenue Service in 2006, a process that required submitting a 90-page application form, Elmo began operating Read and Feed in November 2007.

With no paid staff, the nonprofit operates with a small board of directors, a core of 20 volunteers and an operating budget of $60,000 funded through 10 grants and donations it has received from local foundations, companies, civic groups and individuals.

The group purchased its RV for $36,000 it received through contributions from individuals, and also receives books donated by Broughton and Fuquay-Varina high schools and by individuals.

Read and Feed initially offered its program at Penny Road Elementary School in Cary in fall 2007, adding Northwoods Elementary in spring 2008 and then Habitat’s Rosalyn Place development off Poole Road in Raleigh as well as Cedar Fork Elementary School in Morrisville last summer.

This past fall, the group offered its program at Northwoods Elementary, Green Spring Valley and Dowling Ridge, and this spring will expand by again serving Penny Road Elementary.

At each location it serves, Read and Feed offers a 12-week program in the spring and fall, and an eight-week program in the summer, with two one-hour sessions at each location each evening.

With the help of four volunteers, mainly high school and college students, but also including retired teachers and professionals, the program provides a meal for each student, then a half-hour of reading lessons, with students divided by grade level.

Each student gets a meal, followed by a homework session during which kids can earn up to $4 in play money they can use to buy toys and school supplies.

And the work is paying off, Elmo says.

At Northwoods, for example, every student who participated in the program, most of them studying English as a second language, improved significantly in their end-of-grade testing, she says.

Now, with the assistance of Executive Service Corps of the Greater Triangle, including funds from a grant the group received from the Triangle Community Foundation, Read and Feed is working to expand its board, increase its fundraising and address other needs such as securing food for students.

The group also is considering buying a second RV, a move that would require more volunteers and possibly a paid employee to coordinate logistics and meals.

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