WORDS & PICTURES: Gabrielle Versmessen
With humble beginnings just six years ago at only 76 students, 36 mentors, and one location, Dive Into Reading has grown to over 500 participants and six locations across Manatee, Sarasota, and DeSoto counties. Dive Into Reading is a five-week summer program that helps first, second, and third-grade students who are behind in their reading comprehension. Along with reading, the program incorporates sight words and writing too. But their outreach doesn’t stop there.
John and Amanda Horne, the owners of Anna Maria Oyster Bar and creators of Dive Into Reading, wanted to ensure that these children get a hot meal while also learning social etiquette skills. During their mealtime, mentors teach their students how to use a knife and fork properly, order from a menu, serve themselves from a buffet, and interact with adults. Then, the kids pick out a book to read with some support from the mentor. At the end of the session, all the kids get together for a read-aloud book.
In Manatee County, all 15 Title I elementary schools participate. A different school visits the locations each day, but it’s the same kids each week, so it’s like a field trip day for them. The schools sign the kids up because they’re attending Camp RISE, a summer program for children who are behind in reading. One of the participating locations is Gecko’s on State Road 70, managed by Doug Teta. His wife, Amy, is a teacher at Tara Elementary School. Being a Dive Into Reading location for five years, they’ve even roped both their children in to help with the program!
Amy loves the effects Dive Into Reading has on not just the younger children but the teens that volunteer too. “It reinforces such great things for the teens. The program gives them the confidence to work with the kids, and teaching them reading can build confidence in themselves. And sometimes, you get one or two teens who find out they like working with kids and decide they want to be a teacher!”
Jennifer Murphy is a reading coach for the School District of Manatee County who heard about the program through another reading coach. “This is my first summer being a mentor, and it has been super fun. I didn’t know high school students could volunteer as well! I will definitely participate again next summer and be recruiting more high schoolers.”
Noeli Velasquez, a student at Palmetto High School, is a second-year mentor for Dive Into Reading. Hearing about the program through her high school counselor, Noeli joined to earn her volunteer hours.
“Last year, I saw so much improvement in the kids I mentored between the beginning of the program and the end. The best part about being a Dive Into Reading mentor has been helping the kids and seeing their progress over the weeks,” she says.
Some mentors will even volunteer at multiple locations. John recalls one mentor in particular who stands out to him that brings her service dog and takes the bus every single day of the program.
“Of course, the kids get all excited when they see the dog, but how amazing is that? She takes the bus every day just to get to the children,” he marvels.
Amanda reminisces on another story, “We have one mentor, Judy, who has been with us from the start. We have ice breaker cards on the table for the first week, and one of the cards was ‘What is the nicest thing anybody has ever done for you?’ And the little girl said to her, ‘What you’re doing for me.’ Judy burst into tears and tells this story to everybody she meets.”
All mentors go through level one background checks and then do a 45-minute training that includes going over the reasons why John and Amanda do the program, statistics, and what Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading is doing for our community to raise awareness of the importance of attendance, school readiness, and summer learning. The training also includes strategies for reading with the children. For example, how to engage with a child who gets distracted and then get them back on track to reading.
Through Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, they are able to track what their growth numbers are. Children who attend Dive Into Reading have an average growth rate of 1.25 months of reading skills over the summer as opposed to a loss from the “summer slide” or even staying stagnant.
The program started through a suggestion from Ed Viltz, who was running for Manatee County School District’s Superintendent at the time. Ed met with John and suggested that he encourage the guests that come into his restaurants to go into the schools to read to the kids.
“So, we’re sitting at home, chatting, and I had just gone to an event at the Manatee Community Foundation where they were talking about how children weren’t getting their social-emotional skills met. We said, ‘Why not put it together and have them come to the restaurant?’ We then started working with the school district to come up with a program,” Amanda explains.
But for Amanda and John, it’s not about them.
“For us, it’s about our kids and our future. They belong to every one of us in the community. They’re not just a parent’s responsibility; it’s a community’s responsibility. We also have to make sure that the kids are safe, that they are fed, and that they are educated. All these mentors are the ones that make it happen.”
After Dive Into Reading started, it only took two years to receive an award from the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, which helped propel the program to grow into what it is today. Of course, over the years, there have been minor tweaks to the program as they learn more about what works or doesn’t work, but overall, the structure has stayed the same.
Amanda says, “Our goal is for these mentors to go into the schools once summer is over and the kids are back. They can go into the same school that the kid they mentored attends or another school, but we want them to go in and continue to mentor. Like through ReadingPals, they have another avenue to do just that.”
What are their plans for the future? John and Amanda want to take the program statewide. John is going to be the chair of the Florida Restaurant Lodging Association. Once that happens, they will have the ability to make it a Florida Restaurant Lodging Association initiative which will generate more funding and give the program the opportunity to get into schools across the state.
“I can’t tell you how many people have reached out asking how they can help or get involved,” Amanda says.