Reading Warriors Lead the Battle Against Illiteracy

By Serena Zets – 10th Grade, Pittsburgh CAPA

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy reports that 13% of adults in the U.S. are in the lowest of four literacy levels, Below Basic. These adults struggle to do basic tasks like reading labels or medicine bottles. In Allegheny County, 13% of the adult population equates to about 135,000 adults.  To combat this problem, Reading Warriors are working hard to instill a lifelong love of reading in Pittsburgh’s youth.

The Reading Warriors from the Neighborhood Learning Alliance is a year-long program that pairs teen reading mentors with young kids who are learning to read.  Generous funding from the Learn and Earn Summer Youth Employment Program and Heinz Endowments has allowed the program to spread throughout the city in Garfield, the Hill District, Homewood , Larimer and Lincoln-Lemington.  Reading Warriors doesn’t just provide educational assistance; it is a comprehensive program that provides the kids everything from books and meals to new friends.

The teen mentors dedicate a lot of time to the program throughout the year, and their positive impact is apparent. During the school year, the program runs after school Monday through Thursday, 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Teen volunteers sacrifice extracurricular activities for the sake of helping younger students.  Because of the success of the school year program, the Neighborhood Learning Alliance created a summer Reading Warriors program this year, in which participants meet Monday through Friday, 9:00 am to 12:00 pm.  On Fridays, the mentors attend training at the East Liberty branch of Carnegie Library where they create lesson plans for the following week.

All of the Warriors agree that the large time commitment is worthwhile. Sierra, a long-time participant, makes the trek to the Bloomfield site from her home in the North Side every day. “It is a big time commitment because they need you. It’s not for everybody, but for some people [including myself] it’s really great,” she explained.

Sierra has formed a tight bond with some of the little kids and feels guilty if she misses a day. “When you’re not there for a day, they ask ‘Where’s Miss Sierra?’… So I try to make it every day.”

The relationship between the Reading Warriors and their mentees is one between two friends. As they eat breakfast together, they gossip and chitchat. But as soon as breakfast ends, it’s down to business.

When community members first hear about the Warriors’ work, they assume that it only benefits the kids learning to read, but through the program, teen participants are paid, gain work experience, and receive training which teaches them everything from creating lesson plans to working in a professional setting. In addition to reading picture books with the kids every day, Warriors are required to read a novel over the summer. This practice encourages and fosters their love of reading without adding too much to their work load.

One of the many benefits for teen mentors is the opportunity to earn digital badges from Pittsburgh City of Learning.  Reading Warriors can earn up to six badges, including professionalism and independent reading. They are observed and evaluated every day to ensure that they are meeting the requirements. A lot of the Warriors are striving for all six badges, and their managers believe they will use the badges on resumes or college applications.

Amy Baumgardner, the program’s coordinator, explained that the program started to help kids learn to read, but the reach has extended to the Warriors themselves and into their own communities. Baumgardner says her favorite part of the program is that “it started for the kids and still is for the kids, but now it’s a little different. I get the chance to pour my time into the teens and mentor them… I get to help the teens understand why this task is so important, but also help them move forward into their futures.”

After seeing the Warriors in action, it’s easy to see that they’re not just helping make a difference in their mentees’ lives: they’re changing their own in the process. And that’s worth more than a book or two.

Serena ZetsSerena Zets is a sophomore at Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts High School. At CAPA, her discipline is literary arts where she received the opportunity to take part in an introductory journalism course. She is a resident of Squirrel Hill where she bakes, reads, and most importantly sleeps.

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