Every Wednesday afternoon, I stop writing long enough to spend an hour at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, helping a kindergartner learn to read.
Saniya Harris, 6, is sweet, smart and eager. When we began our weekly meetings last fall, she already knew her letters. Now we work on phonics and sight words by reading books about her favorite things: animals, princesses and Barbie.
The Carnegie Center is housed in the building that was the Lexington Public Library from 1905 to 1989. The cheerful tutoring center upstairs, with its tall ceiling and big windows, was the children's room where I read some of my first books when I was Saniya's age.
Now, I am one of 150 adults who tutor and mentor 180 school kids each week in a program that has helped more than 3,000 children since the Carnegie Center opened in 1992.
The center is planning a 20th-anniversary reunion on March 27 for current and past tutors, students and parents. The event honors Phyllis MacAdam, who started the program and directed it until her retirement as the center's assistant director in 2003.
"We always knew there was going to be some kind of a tutoring program," MacAdam said of her fellow Carnegie Center founders, whose vision was to transform the outgrown library into a place that fostered community learning and the literary arts.
MacAdam had been a teacher in Massachusetts before earning a doctorate in literacy education at the University of Kentucky. She started the Carnegie Center's tutoring program with a few UK and Transylvania University students as tutors and a dozen students from schools in nearby low-income neighborhoods.
"I brought in all of my children's books, all of their dead Monopoly games," she said. "The first two kids we tutored were the sons of our custodian. Then, by word of mouth, the program grew and grew."
The program's goal is to give students, especially disadvantaged students, a little extra help. Kids also benefit from having an adult mentor who isn't their parent. Children with learning disabilities are paired with tutors who have special training.
"It's not like you're making massive educational changes," MacAdam said. "You're just helping them with their needs and giving them some special attention."
The program's priority is students from low-income families, but it's open to anyone. Slots fill up quickly on registration day. Parents who manage to get their kids into the program tend to be motivated to get them there each week and reinforce the lessons, said Carol Bradford, the center's current tutoring coordinator.
Tutoring is free, but there is an annual registration fee of $50, or $5 for students on free-or-reduced lunch at school. The volunteer tutors, who must be at least 16 years old, include college students, working professionals and retirees. Over the years, a few Carnegie Center students have grown up to be tutors.
"It's also a great opportunity for the tutors, and they just love it," Bradford said. "It helps build relationships in the community among people who might not otherwise get to know each other."
Last year, Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center's director, tutored a young Korean girl who needed help with English while her family was living temporarily in Lexington.
"It was such a relief from the workday," said Chethik, who has continued to correspond by email with the child since her family moved back to South Korea. "It's an hour when all you have to think about is this one little kid."
Tiffanie Holland said her three sons — ages 8, 10 and 12 — have benefitted enormously from the tutoring program.
"The Carnegie Center has been very important to my family," she said. "Everyone's friendly here, and they're rooting and cheering you on. They want every child to succeed."
Mark Molla, a financial analyst for Lexmark International, has been tutoring Lewis Mayberry, 8, in math and reading since August. At their meeting last Thursday afternoon, they talked baseball as the enthusiastic third-grader read aloud from a book about pitching great Satchel Paige.
"It's something I always wanted to do," Molla said of tutoring. "And I'm probably learning as much as he is."
If you go
Tutor Appreciation and Reunion
Who: Current and former Carnegie Center tutors, students and parents.
What: Dinner and celebration. Card-making contest for kids.
When: 6-8 p.m. March 27
Where: Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St., Lexington.
Reservations: The event is free, but register by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (859) 254-4175.