The Calvary Family Center has been giving kids an extra boost in one of life's critical skills since 2004.
The center houses a math and reading tutoring program that meets every Saturday, run by volunteers.
"Our reading program has three components,"said Director Sharla Coleson. "We do a group reading time where an adult reads to the kids as a group, demonstrating proper reading inflection, things like that."
-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter
Director Sharla Coleson looks through a pile of toys and gifts that were later given away to students of the Calvary Family Center at its Christmas party. The center often gives free books to the kids, to encourage reading at home as a family.
For the second component, kids get one-on-one attention. Volunteers help the students learn how to decode words and other reading strategies.
"Third is independent time," Coleson said. "They can work on worksheets, we have computers with programs related to reading, board games, or they can sit down and just read a book."
The program is free to all the kids, she said. Attendance varies from week to week. The busiest Saturday this year had 26 students, while other weeks only six have come. Kids range in age from 4 years old to junior high school age.
Twenty students is about average, said the Rev. Leroy Johnson, who got the program going. The program is now its own nonprofit organization, but is put on mostly by members of the Calvary Memorial Church of God in Christ.
Like many charitable organizations, the center sometimes struggles to stay funded these days, said Coleson.
"Funding is through donations, and we're funded by the church, whatever needs are not met by donations," she said. "It's by the grace of God we continue to function."
The shelter didn't see any spike in donations over the Christmas season, Johnson said, but they weren't expecting one.
"From time to time we get donations from concerned people," he said. "We appreciate that.
"We're not soliciting anything right now. We try to work our way, and we participate in a program sponsored by Younkers."
Selling $5 booklets from Younkers has been the center's fundraising staple for three or four years now, he said.
On the main floor, children gather in a library area to listen to reading. All the books on the shelves are donated, Coleson said. Another room holds computers from a Cedar Rapids company, which takes unneeded computers donated by companies and gives them to nonprofits.
The community was very helpful four years ago, Coleson said, when a broken sprinkler flooded the building.
"We lost a lot of things, but we had good insurance," she said. "So all these things have been donated since then. The community has been very supportive."
Coleson believes the center works well because its workers are passionate.
"Those who volunteer know how important it is for kids to get those fundamental skills of reading. If you can't read, it affects your whole life, your ability to get a job, your employment, your school, even just filling out paperwork," she said.
"Pastor's vision is what started all this," Coleson said. "When he heard early in the 2000s, the disparity of African-American kids' reading and math scores compared to the rest of the population, he determined that something needed to be done to help the kids."
Johnson said, "Since we were right in the community, we decided we could do something about that in collaboration with the school board."
Church volunteers met with Fort Dodge Community Schools workers to develop a program the kids would be familiar with.
"We would go to sessions with (the reading instructor) every two or three months, and take the training, to keep abreast with the programs the school was using," Johnson said. "There are multiple ways to teach children to read. There's no need to complicate the situation by teaching them one way here, when they're learning the other way in school."
Coleson said the center uses reading levels from A to Z, just like at the school.
Most of their students find the center after being referred by a teacher.
"At the beginning, most of our kids were African-American. Now we just distribute it to the school and whatever kids the teachers or parents feel need some extra help with reading, they come and it's all races," she said.
Coleson said parents and teachers like the program.
"We have lots of parents that come back and express appreciation about how much their kids have improved, or have more interest in reading after having participated in the program," she said. "And we have also had teachers who come in and remark how much the kids have improved."
"Some of the older children come back and help," said Johnson, "which is an asset."