Photo by Caitlin Cunningham
The Boston College community knows her as a staff assistant in the Communication Department, but Leslie Douglas has a not-so-secret identity.
Once a month, she transforms into “Miss Leslie,” enthusiastic reader of stories to young children and dressed to suit the occasion, whether a Halloween witch, a Christmas elf, or a St. Patrick’s Day leprechaun.
This fall, Douglas formally started her 18th year as a volunteer in the University’s award-winning Read Aloud program, which sends faculty and staff to visit K-5 classrooms at the St. Columbkille Partnership School and Thomas Edison K-8 School, both in Brighton, where they read a story or book to the students. The program, a partnership between BC, Boston Public Schools, and Boston Partners in Education, is back to an in-person format after the pandemic had curtailed visits to schools from 2020 through last spring. During that period, some Read Aloud volunteers, including Douglas, used Zoom or YouTube videos to maintain a connection with the schoolchildren.
Needless to say, Douglas prefers the live-and-in-person version.
“I like it when the students react and have questions in regard to what I’m reading,” said Douglas, who has worked with pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade classes at St. Columbkille. “Kids at that age are so bright and eager to learn. Flexibility is the key word with children, and so is listening. For all that to work, you really need to be in the same room with them.”
Intersections Program Director Burton Howell, who’s been with the program for more than two decades, agrees. “Their love for books is refreshing. When I ask a question, almost every hand goes up, and they are truly excited to answer.”
Read Aloud is not meant simply to entertain, say participants and organizers: The program’s aim is to help foster a love of reading among the schoolchildren, touting books as a source of pleasure and fuel for youthful imagination. Along the way, Read Aloud brings caring adults into the kids’ lives—and those adults usually find the benefits go both ways.
“Having gone to St. Columbkille for 12 years now, I feel very welcome,” said Information Technology Services Assistant Manager Jon McGrath. “The students, faculty, and staff there seem to truly appreciate all the volunteers that come through; they know we don’t have to be there, we want to be there, and that seems to mean something to them. Getting to know the kids over the course of a year is very rewarding.”
“You get a lot more out of the Read Aloud program than you put in,” said Associate Director for Major Giving Gemma Dorsey, a 10-year volunteer. “It is a small time commitment to have a great impact on the lives of these special kids.”
Read Aloud was honored in 2010 by Boston Partners in Education, a nonprofit that aims to enhance the academic achievement and nurture the personal growth of Boston’s public school students.
"The students at St. Columbkille love the BC readers," said Kate Ward, the school's chief advancement and enrollment officerl. "They bring energy and warmth to our classrooms and we are very grateful. Children love to be read to and always cheer when their BC reader appears."
With support from Human Resources, Office of Governmental and Community Affairs Staff Assistant Laura Bitran has organized the Read Aloud program since its inception in 1995, when six volunteers formed the first cohort. That number quickly grew to upwards of 55 to 65 a year, before the pandemic lockdown halted the program—except for those volunteers, like Douglas, who stayed in touch remotely—and Bitran is confident that it will return to the pre-COVID level.
“Read Aloud is fun but it’s also doing something important: engaging with children,” she said. “You’re showing them how enjoyable reading is, and you’re also offering an opportunity to talk: ‘What did you like about this story? What do you think happened afterwards?’”
Bitran, a Brazilian native whose accent has sometimes piqued the curiosity of her Read Aloud classes, added that going off-book also is perfectly acceptable. “A child might ask, ‘You have an accent, where are you from?’ You can say something about yourself and invite them to talk a little about themselves.”
Working in a college environment affords Douglas and other program volunteers a special perspective: Through Read Aloud, they see children at the early stages of their school experience; at BC, they see the young people these kids will someday become, embarking on the next phase in their education.
“It does make my job interesting,” said Douglas, who notes that more than a few BC students seek her out for candy or other such treats around Halloween or other special occasions.
For Douglas, who has an undergraduate degree in communication and a master’s degree in administrative studies from BC, her monthly visit to St. Columbkille involves staying in touch on a regular basis with the class teacher and planning for contingencies while accepting that, well, sometimes things happen. She typically brings three books with her, usually from home (the Lynch School of Education and Human Development’s Educational Resource Center also has a good store of material for Read Aloud volunteers).
“There were times when I was sure they’d like the book I brought,” she said, “but I’d get two pages into it and you could see their eyes start to glaze. Or, as it turned out, they’d just read the book that morning. So I made sure to have a back-up plan.”
Then again, she added, if the kids really like a book, they might not mind going through it again: “I’ll read a Dr. Seuss book, and the kids are reciting right along with me. I love it.”
When possible, Douglas seeks to incorporate holidays or seasonal events into her monthly appearances. “Around Halloween, I’ve been known to dress up as a witch and ‘fly’ into the room; I’ll ask the kids, ‘Do you think I’m a real witch?’ Then I’ll read something like Room on the Broom. But I’ll also talk a little about Halloween safety. Or, when the weather starts to get warm and everyone’s spending more time outdoors, I mention the importance of protecting your skin from the sun.”
To wrap up the school year, Douglas holds a graduation-type ceremony for the class, giving each child a certificate for reading; she asks the kids to applaud one another.
“I just think it’s a nice way to finish up this time we’ve had together, and celebrate what we’ve learned about ourselves and one another,” she said.
Douglas has been gratified by the support of teachers and parents alike, the latter of whom often greet her with “Oh, so you’re Miss Leslie!” upon being introduced. “It makes you feel like a celebrity,” laughed Douglas, who has sometimes found herself “mobbed” in the school parking lot by enthusiastic young fans.
McGrath has had a similar experience attending the Christmas celebration at St. Columbkille Parish, an event involving many students from the school. “The kids greeted me like a returning hero; my own kids were never that excited to see me,” he quipped. “All I did was show up for something. It wasn’t a big deal, but reminded me that little things can mean a lot to people.”
Bitran notes that BC makes a point of recognizing its Read Aloud volunteers with an annual “Celebration of a Reader” reception, which features a guest speaker—usually local—from the literary community. She points to Vice President for Human Resources David Trainor and Director of Employee Development Bernard O’Kane as avid supporters of Read Aloud, in particular by informing newly hired employees about the program.
“Read Aloud would not have grown as it has if we did not have the unconditional support of these two remarkable people,” she said. “We are indebted to them.”
For information about the Read Aloud program, contact Laura Bitran at email@example.com.
Sean Smith | University Communications | December 2021