When many people think back to childhood, they remember the stacks of books lining their bedroom walls, weekly trips to the library or being read to every night at bedtime. But not all area children are so fortunate. That’s where Ready Readers steps in.

Ready Readers was started in 1999 by retired attorney Pat Simons. Simons’ husband was a pediatrician, who “was seeing the need of so many children coming in who had never seen a book before,” says current executive director Lisa Greening. “So, she and some friends started reading to preschool children.”

Fast-forward 15 years, and Ready Readers has more than 570 volunteers reading weekly to 8,725 children, ages 2 to 5. The organization sends the readers to preschool classrooms throughout the area, where at least 75 percent of the children receive free or reduced lunch. Volunteers read for a half hour a week to the same classroom all school-year long. Many become part of the preschools’ communities, Greening says, and volunteer there for years.

Volunteers get to choose which books they read each week. And every four to six weeks, Ready Readers provides volunteers with gift books for the children to take home. By the end of the school year, each child has taken home seven books. “A child’s vocabulary when entering kindergarten is directly correlated to a child’s third-grade reading scores,” Greening says. “And the way you get a strong vocabulary is through books and being read to.”

Ready Readers volunteers receive a range of resources to help them pick interesting and appropriate books, come up with intriguing exercises and questions, and work with the teachers. The nonprofit collaborates with local librarians to create lists of good books that volunteers can choose from, and offers workshops to inspire and coach the volunteers. A group of mentors also travels to the classrooms to observe the readers, and give them ideas to help them improve. Area teachers also use Ready Readers as part of their professional development: Last year, the nonprofit provided workshops for more than 420 teachers, offering them teaching methods and unit plans.

Greening says most of the readers are stay-at-home moms, retired people and students. All students in the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Education are required to read for the organization for a semester, as are all fourth-year students at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, who read the children books related to sleep, exercise and nutrition.

“They’re trying to focus on health issues,” Greening says. “At the same time, they’re getting to be part of a community that they’re potentially going to serve as pharmacists.”

While the Ready Readers relies heavily on its army of readers, its main focus remains on the children. “Investing in our youngest children is the best investment you can make,” Greening says. “To give children the opportunity to be able to read and to be able to learn is the one way I know for sure to get out of poverty.”

Volunteer Spotlight: Miriam Chapman

Miriam Chapman opens to the first page of How Do Dinosaurs Love their Cats by Jane Yolen. Preschoolers sitting ‘criss-cross-applesauce’ surround her. Some wait quietly, ready for her to begin reading, while others raise their hands to tell her about their cat—or dinosaur—at home.

Chapman visits Jump Start Learning Center in Pagedale once a week, where she volunteers for Ready Readers by reading to the students. Chapman discovered the organization at a networking event last year, and has been volunteering ever since. She also recently started working part-time for the organization, visiting classrooms and mentoring other volunteers, as well as helping with fundraising. Today, she has brought with her enough copies of How Do Dinosaurs Love Their Cats—bought for the organization by Purina—to give one to each child.

Chapman says literacy is very important to her: As a child, her dad read to her and her sisters, and she always had a book in her hand. “Something my dad told me a long time ago was, ‘You get your education because no one can ever take that away from you,’ which I find very true,” Chapman says. “It also leads to a lot of opportunity. Once you have an education, and knowledge and literacy, you’re able to make the decision of how you want your life to be. But if you don’t have that, the playing field is never equal for you.”

One of the most rewarding experiences of volunteering with Ready Readers, Chapman says, is seeing the children learn and participate. She enjoys reading them books in which they can interact, make sounds, move and stretch. Anything with bright, bold illustrations, she says, also is a hit. Often she sings songs with the kids, and asks them questions to help grow their reading comprehension.

“There were a couple children when I first started whose language wasn’t really developed yet,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s me who’s responsible for it—because they only get to see me for 30 minutes a week—but just seeing the work that the teachers are doing, really working with them on language and having conversations with them and reading to them on a regular basis even when I’m not here, it’s nice to see those students’ language skills improve...Way down the road, whether we know it or not, we have encouraged a child to be a lifelong learner and reader. Hopefully, they’ll do the same for their children because of what they had in this stage of their life.”

For more information, visit readyreaders.org.