“Look at me! Look at me! Look at me NOW! It is fun to have fun. But you have to know how,” author and speaker Juju Sands reads enthusiastically to the group of 5th graders captivated by her voice and facial expressions as she makes her way through the ever popular “The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss.
Sands was just one of several people volunteering to read to students at Brooklyn Elementary School in Boyle Heights last Friday as part of Read Across America, an annual event to foster a joy of reading in K-12 students.
About 28 volunteers, representing an array of professional backgrounds that included elected officials, firefighters, LAPD officers, Sheriff’s deputies and members of the Navy among others, took part in Friday’s program. Each was assigned to a classroom where they read to students and encouraged them to make reading a regular part of their day.
Some of the guest readers, like Deputy Sheriff Andrea Sandoval from the East Los Angeles Sheriff Station, appeared in uniform, eliciting big smiles from their young audiences. In Sandoval’s case, some of her students were more intrigued with the items hanging from her uniform than the story she was reading, which the deputy saw as a chance to demystify her job.
“They were very exited about the uniform,” Sandoval told EGP about her class of first graders. “They kept asking about the things we were carrying and I explained to them what [everything is] on our belts,” she said.
Lea este artículo EN ESPAÑOL: Cuentos de Dr. Seuss y Voluntarios Motivan a Estudiantes en la Lectura 
Sandoval’s partner, Deputy Anthony Pacheco was assigned to a class of 3rd graders and says the boys and girls were “very excited listening to the story” and to be able to interact with the law enforcement officers.
Read Across America was started 17 years ago by the National Education Association and is celebrated all across the country on or about March 3 to coincide with Dr. Seuss’ birthday. But the program does not end in early March, it continues in various forms all year long. Read Across America “focuses on motivating children and teens to read through events, partnerships and reading resources” states the NEA website.
“When parents, educators, librarians, and mentors read with children, they give a gift that will nourish souls for a lifetime,” states President Barack Obama’s Feb. 28 letter proclaiming Read Across America Day.
“From children’s stories to classic works of literature, the written word allows us to see the world from different perspectives. It helps us understand what it means to be human and what it means to be American,” states the president’s proclamation letter in which he encourages adults to read to children.
That is especially true in low-income communities like Boyle Heights, which Navy veteran Tony Mendoza points out has a “significant immigrant population.” Taking part in Read Across America helps him help his community by exposing young people to different types of American role models and careers that they might not otherwise know of, he said.
Brooklyn Elementary kindergarten teacher Leticia Mendoza helped organize last Friday’s event. “The kids really enjoy the readings, it’s something different from the [same] teachers,” she said. They especially love to see people in uniform and even recognized some of the volunteers as being from their own neighborhood, she added.
Mendoza says it is good for children to see people are willing to “ take time out of their day to read to them.”
In another classroom, Naval Officer Gary Skags’ stories about his life as a sailor were a big hit with the fifth graders, their eyes opening wide as he tells them about his encounters with pirates out at sea. “We had to confront the bad guys” and turn them over to the police, he recounted as the students listened in awe.
But as exciting as his life may seem, Skags’ emphasizes that it is still very important to get an education. He said he is attending Pasadena College to earn a college degree and urged the students to do the same when they graduate from high school.
Naval Officer Raymundo Magdaleno told EGP his uniform seemed to impress his young audience more than his reading of Dr. Seuss’ “Shape of Me and Other Stuff.”
“They react to the medals, they appreciate us being there and we get saluted,” said Magdaleno proudly. “It makes us feel welcome,” he added.
Not all the fun, however, was reserved for students in the lower grades. Five 7th grade students with top grades were selected to help organize the reading event and were given the honor of escorting the distinguished volunteer guest readers.
And it wasn’t only the little ones who were impressed by the parade of uniforms, twelve-year-old Freddy Inocencio had a hard time not staring at the police and sheriff deputy volunteers: “I want to be in SWAT” someday, he explained to EGP.
Nayeli Jimenez, 12, thinks the Read Across America event was a good idea. “It’s good that they are reading so that the children” can have some good role models to look up to, she told EGP.
Kindergarten teacher Mendoza told EGP she wants to remind people that reading to children has many long-term benefits and should be done everyday, not just during events like Read Across America. Brooklyn Elementary welcomes volunteer adult readers year-round, Mendoza said, adding the adults may get as much out of the experience as her students.
Twitter @jackieguzman