KAILUA-KONA — Excitement filled the air Tuesday at The Homes at Ulu Wini as dozens of keiki, some with family in tow, flocked to the community center for a good meal and night of reading. Yes, reading.
It’s a program called Feed and Read that’s put on once a month at the low-income rental and transitional housing complex off Kaloko Drive in Kailua-Kona. An all-volunteer effort, the program is working to promote literacy among all of The Homes at Ulu Wini residents — young and old.
“It’s really an evening to celebrate community, literacy and, really, to just gather folks and share some of those reading opportunities,” said Anthony Savvis, youth program director at Ulu Wini.
As its name implies, the program feeds attendees who then take to books and other literacy-minded activities to improve their reading skills. Each also goes home with a few books every month, at no cost.
“You can’t learn if you’re hungry, and you can’t be successful if you can’t read,” said Shauna Yusko, a teacher/librarian at Makua Lani who helps organize the community partnership. “Reading is the key.”
Having access to a good meal, books, activities, and reading with others over the past year has helped improve the literacy skills of both Norline Alfred, 11, and Teblina Jennet, 10.
“It’s helping me to learn English and it’s helping me to read,” said Alfred, a sixth-grader at Kealakehe Intermediate School whose favorite book, right now, is “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” “It’s important because you’re going to need (to be able) to read in life.”
The idea for Feed and Read came about in late 2016 when a former literacy specialist at Kealakehe Elementary School approached the facility’s management, Hawaii Affordable Properties, wanting to create a program that would fill a need in the community, said Savvis.
Hawaii Affordable Properties is contracted by the county to manage the 96-unit property. The company also provides case management, mail and computer access and an array of on-site social services, including employment and life skills training, mental health services, counseling and childcare.
After looking at the community’s needs, they found promoting reading skills would best bolster existing after-school and enrichment programs at Ulu Wini.
“We’re very much focused on tutoring, building literacy skills,” he explained. “A lot of our population is ELL (English language learners) so this is a tremendous partnership.”
Feed and Read took off as a full-fledged monthly program in the 2017-18 school year after a successful pilot that summer.
Initially attracting 20 to 25 people, mainly kids, Feed and Read has grown in popularity, now drawing 45 to 50 people, including children and adults, Savvis said.
Food, which Savvis admits is the draw, has been served at the monthly program since the get-go. For the first year or so, volunteers cooked meals or pitched in to buy pizza.
But for about the past nine months, Daylight Mind Coffee Co. has taken the feeding component of the program under its wing. The restaurant provides free healthy, home-cooked meals for 50-plus people — including attendees and volunteers — each month.
“Sixty, 70 folks could come on a busy night and Daylight Mind doesn’t shy away from the food whatsoever,” said Savvis. “They’ve just been an unbelievable partner.”
Tuesday’s tasty offering was enchiladas stuffed with chicken, spinach and other veggies and cheese with a green chili sauce, a green salad with a choice of red wine or lilikoi vinaigrette, and juice.
“It’s good,” said 5-year-old Rosemita before running off to grab a book to read with a volunteer.
Up to a couple dozen people from all sectors of the community volunteer time each month to make sure the event goes off without a hitch.
Among them are teachers and staff from schools the kids attend as well as peer mentors from Makua Lani Christian Academy and West Hawaii Explorations Academy, and other schools.
“I come because I get joy out of watching my high school students give back to the kids,” said Sandy Butler, Makua Lani Christian Academy principal.
Employees with companies, like Kaiser and Costco; members of organizations, such as the Kiwanis and Girl Scouts; and individuals with spare time also lend a hand.
“It’s such a worthy cause to me,” said Lisi Fredriksen, who works in the management field. “I know I’m busy, but it just gives me life knowing that we’re able to invest in them by helping them read, encouraging them, ensuring they have full bellies and just being able to love them — even at this time of evening when they’re not even in school and still coming out to us wanting to read.”
The attendees’ desire to read appears to be having a positive impact as ELL coordinators at area schools are reporting progress being made by the students.
“They’re seeing improvements with their grades and their ability to move through reading levels,” said Savvis, explaining that oftentimes ELL students are about two years behind their counterparts. “We’re seeing some strides made on that front and we’re trying to chip away at that as best as we can.”
To contribute or volunteer, or to get more information about the Feed and Read, after-school and enrichment programs at Ulu Wini, email Savvis at firstname.lastname@example.org. Updates are also posted on their Facebook page, The Homes at Ulu Wini.