Eli: To start off, tell me a little about who you are and what keeps you busy these days!
Leslie: I’m married and have 3 daughters (27, 24, and 17). Nicole and Megan are up and out; Erin is a rising senior. I was a stay at home mom for several years and then spent about 17 years as a Customer Service Rep for Avionics Specialist here in Memphis. In November 2016, I “retired”. I had navigated my dad’s Alzheimer’s journey for 6 years, worked, raised my girls/juggling their competitive sports and I was tired. Currently I volunteer as Head Coach at Getwell Elementary with Arise2Read, am a mentor with Youth Villages, and am a liaison with John P Freeman Optional School and Geotechnology Inc on a STEM Initiative. Erin is a playing competitive golf so I also spend lots of time watching golf and supporting her.
Eli: Wow that is a lot! Your plate is definitely full. What does being “Head Coach” at Arise2Read mean?
Leslie: Arise2Read supports the Team Read program within Shelby County Schools. We have volunteers (referred to as coaches) that read/work on Fry word lists with second graders. As the Head Coach, my role is to coordinate with the staff at the school to set up a suitable area/logistical schedule for all of this to occur as well as schedule all of the volunteers. Last year got hijacked, obviously, but during the 2019/2020 school year I had about 32 coaches at Getwell.
I began as a Team Read coach at South Park Elementary through Hope Church in Memphis. Although I feel blessed to be able to use my operational skills to lead as a Head Coach; I must say I miss the one on one coaching!! This past COVID school year, I was able to get back to some of that by being an Arise2Read coach at a MAM virtual learning center.
Eli: That’s impressive. So with 32 coaches at this one school, what does the coach:student ratio look like?
Leslie: Each coach comes to the school for an hour each week. They are assigned 2 students and work with each one for a half hour each. We all have to be quite flexible as students are often absent or coaches have other commitments; so frequently coaches will work with students other than the 2 that have been assigned to them. I’d say most of my coaches are still working. Our coaching hours are typically around lunchtime so that the coaches can use their lunch hour. I’ve been really blessed with an awesome group of men and women at Getwell.
Eli: How many days a week are you volunteering with Arise2Read?
Leslie: 2 days a week since 2017. Tuesdays and Thursdays seem to be optimal with best attendance rate. If I get more than the 32 coaches, though, we’ll have to add more days.
Eli: I can’t believe some of your volunteers come during their lunch hours! That is truly amazing. With all the challenges in this kind of work, what keeps you coming back?
Leslie: Seeing the kids progress and the pride in their reading gains is big, but seeing the relationships/camaraderie between the coaches and the students (and between coaches and other coaches of other backgrounds) may be even bigger for me. We are oftentimes crossing racial and socioeconomic “boundaries” that hopefully will have a ripple effect throughout our city. Arise2Read’s tag line is “Save a child. Save a family. Save a city.” Every time I’m at school I see the possibility that this is indeed true.
Leslie: As for coaches coming on their lunch hours. Big shoutout to Green Mountain Technology. They were a sponsor of Getwell Elementary during 2019/20 school year and not only provided some monetary support, but encouraged their employees to come participate. I also have investment bankers, an office manager from Stearn Clinic, a travel agent, and several retired teachers.
Eli: Do you have any stories of seeing a student progress against the odds?
Leslie: I don’t have a particular student story, but I have repeatedly seen that in this one on one format coaches (even with no teaching background….I don’t have a teaching background) can often figure out things that “work” for their particular student. We’ve found that some students don’t do well with the Fry word list, but if you put the Fry sentences list in front of them, they can make better progress. So there can be a student that would seem, initially , “hopeless” but change the context/format and suddenly there’s “hope”/progress. Teachers don’t have the time to spend one on one with their students. Single working parents, unfortunately, don’t always have the time for that one on one. The 1 hour each week these kids get with one on one attention focused on reading can truly be a gift.
Eli: Beautiful. Is Arise2Read in Memphis only? And if someone wants to get involved, how might they do so?
Leslie: Locally, Memphis and Millington, I believe. I know we had some organizations in other cities/states come to us to possibly implement our processes elsewhere; that would be a question for Karen Vogelsang, our Executive Director. As for how to get involved; going to www.Arise2Read.org would be a great place to start, follow us on Facebook, have your Kroger community rewards or Amazon Smile directed to Arise2Read. All these initiatives to make our community a better place to live, take time and money, and lots of prayer. We can all give one of those in whatever life chapter we find ourselves in. I’ve just been blessed with the gift of time right now.
Eli: Thank you! You also said you work with Youth Villages. What does that look like?
Leslie: I had started as a mentor with YV just before COVID. I met with my mentee a few times on campus at The Rose Center in Bartlett and had just requested our first off campus pass (to go bowling and get pizza) when the world shut down.
We continued to be able to have on campus visits (masked). She was fortunate to get assigned to a Foster home (not in Memphis) so our mentoring relationship came to an end. I was assigned another mentee in December 2020, we were mostly virtual until recently. Mentoring virtually has been challenging.
Eli: I can imagine. For a lot of people, the commitment part of volunteering is very scary. What might you say to someone who is scared of committing to volunteer with an organization?
Leslie: Doing all of these things has been “scary”. Venturing outside our comfort zones is uncomfortable (pardon the pun). I spent 17 years in an office with no windows thinking “if only I had the time”. When I got the time I had to just take a great big breath and jump in. What I found, once I jumped in, were lots of like minded people that also want the world to be a better place. My advice is take baby steps. Volunteer at a 1 day event (stuffing backpacks at Bellevue for Arise2Read for example), the people will be friendly and kind, and you will have helped get books into the hands of thousands of kids/families. Then build off the momentum of that. Be the change you want to see in the world.
Eli: That is all very wise. Thank your for sharing that. On behalf of the Governor’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives, thank you for all of your efforts! You truly are making TN a better place for all and are sewing seeds that will create noticeable changes in the world.
Leslie: My pleasure!