Community, Education, Here to Help

SMART supporting children’s lit one volunteer at a time

SPRINGFIELD —  “There is no friend as loyal as a book,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote. From Beverly Cleary to Eric Carle, Judy Blume to C.S. Lewis, the worlds created, the characters that seem to leap off the pages into the hearts of those who welcome them, is a gift unlike any other, especially for children. 

In 1991, a handful of apprehensive Oregon business leaders forged a plan to help combat Oregon’s abysmal reading proficiency statistics. Looking to help strengthen children’s literacy skills, develop more access to books, and foster enthusiasm for reading, the team at SMART Reading is no stranger to the magic of a book. 

The group decided to partner adult mentors with children, allowing them to connect and read with one another. Over the past 32 years, 373,000 children have been positively impacted by the support of more than 147,000 volunteers and the distribution of over 4 million books. 

“When kids are strong readers, it allows them to access information and really excel in school and beyond,” said Phoebe Petersen, communications director at SMART Reading. “The focus of SMART really has been mobilizing and engaging the community and supporting children’s literacy.” 

During the 2022-23 school year in Lane, Linn and Benton counties, 318 volunteers at 37 different sites served 2,069 students. 

Together, they racked up 6,082 total hours of reading. 

Furthermore, 89% of children showed improved reading motivation, and 87% displayed an increased enthusiasm in reading enjoyment. 

“Volunteers often say that how they benefit from reading with kids matches what they’re giving. They are giving their time, their enthusiasm, but they’re receiving something really important in return, that intergenerational connection,” said Laurie McNichols, South Valley area director for SMART Reading. 

At the core of McNichols’ work lies the understanding that reading provides a space for building relationships and lifelong skills.  

While volunteering, McNichols developed a strong bond with one of the first-grade students she was reading to. Due to a work commitment, she could not attend her usual hour of scheduled reading time. 

The following week, the student barreled toward McNichols and wrapped both arms around her legs in a hug. McNichols nearly toppled over but recanted the memory as a positive one.


“It was just such a sincere expression of the connection we had formed, so that was lovely,” McNichols said. 

Most recently, McNichols has spearheaded a new and used children’s book drive for the South Valley SMART Reading program from Aug. 28 to Sept. 15. 

Individuals interested in donating can reach her via phone at 541-600-8035. 

“Last year I read with a student named Xander at Greenway Elementary in Beaverton. We were reading a book called Chalk. It’s a picture book with no words, where three kids discover a bag of magical sidewalk chalk and everything they draw begins to come to life. I asked Xander what he would draw if he had magical chalk, and without missing a beat he said, ‘Money. I would draw money!’ I laughed so hard,” said Jessica Bowersox, Executive Director of SMART Reading. 

At SMART Reading sites throughout the state, the “aha” moment of understanding words and their power is a symphony commonly heard by volunteers and participants in the SMART Reading program. 

It is the moment where standalone letters join together to tell a story and to communicate what’s possible. It is mentors committed to showing students the joy of reading while creating a space for their success and well-being along the way. 

“I can speak from personal experience that volunteering with SMART is the best hour of the week! Building a relationship with a local kiddo in your community and watching them build their self confidence and reading skills throughout the course of the school year is truly rewarding,” Bowersox said. 

As the end of summer and return to academic instruction approaches, SMART Reading is actively recruiting volunteers for 2023-24. They are also looking for site coordinators to help oversee their program. Interested in showing children the magic of reading? Visit the SMART Reading website to learn more.

Other reading initiatives

Students line up for books at United Way’s BookFest at Douglas Gardens Elementary in Springfield. 

Bookfest: United Way

A startling statistic: In Lane County, 60% of third graders are not reading proficiently, meaning they’re four times less likely to graduate from high school on time. 

Heeding the call: United Way, the Early Childhood Hub of Lane County, and Connected Lane County annually host BookFest: a community-wide program helping K-2 students build their home libraries, maintain reading gains over the summer, and ultimately, help them improve their reading scores.  This year, 19 schools participated in BookFest, including Springfield, South Lane, and Lowell school districts. 

How you can help: In February and March, United Way will raise funds to purchase new, popular, diverse books kids love. Then in May and June, United Way will call on volunteers to help with book distribution.

Springfield Library sets up shop for an annual book sale. 

Love your local library

Lane County area libraries have ongoing and special events throughout the year for readers of all ages. Stop by and see for yourself, and keep an eye on Go2 for upcoming events at each library.

Springfield Public Library


225 5th St., Suite 301

Cottage Grove Library


700 E. Gibbs Ave., Suite C

Creswell Library 

64 W. Oregon Ave.




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