SEAL Reading Buddies Adapt to Virtual Volunteering

Students Expanding American Literacy (SEAL) is a non-profit and student service organization that helps young people get excited about reading. Hundreds of college-aged volunteers work with small groups of students weekly. The University of Texas at Austin SEAL chapter partners with Communities In Schools of Central Texas to provide reading buddies on CIS campuses.
In a normal semester, SEAL would be volunteering in-person on twelve CIS locations, with 5-20 volunteers at each site. Due to the pandemic and safety protocols, this year SEAL volunteers are offering virtual reading buddy supports. In the fall semester, they worked with students from two campuses – Andrews Elementary and Wooten Elementary with a total of 28 volunteers.
SEAL President Katy Roberson says, “Volunteering is done completely over Zoom using the e-book program OxfordOwl and the International Children’s Digital Library. With these resources, volunteers share their screen to look for books together with the students, and then read together looking at the same page. After a certain period of time, everyone returns to the main Zoom room for a closing activity. It is important to continue to work of SEAL and CIS because the pandemic hasn’t lessened the importance of our mission at all. If anything, the coronavirus had expedited the effects of educational inequity as low-income students who struggle to receive the virtual resources and support that they need. Our goal here is to make reading, even if it’s over Zoom, fun and engaging so that students love books and want to read for pleasure. Also, having a reading buddy creates a safe space for the students to practice reading with one-on-one attention. Reading is a building block to every other aspect of education, so it’s so important that students have the support they need.”
SEAL Reading Buddy Andrew Thoss is one of the volunteers at Wooten Elementary. He says, “The students have responded surprisingly well to virtual time together. Despite using a computer, the core of the program still remains. Students and volunteers are able to build relationships and enjoy reading in a comfortable environment. Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid haven’t gone anywhere. We also still get to play icebreakers as a group and get to know everyone, even if the games are a bit different.”

Currently, new CIS volunteer opportunities are on hold, but look for updates and ways to get involved later in the month.