U.S. Special Operations Command service members volunteered to read to students at Tinker K-8 School on MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Jan. 24, as part of an on-going volunteer program organized by the school and USSOCOM.
The volunteers comprised mostly of Soldiers from USSOCOM's Army Reserve Element read to nearly 50 elementary students in the K-5th grade.
The volunteers teamed up with students for 15-minute sessions as they cycled in and out of the school's library. Each new session brought between 10-15 new student reading buddies. The children's faces lit up as they matched up with their respective service member partners and were greeted with warm smiles, high-fives, a hug and often a short chat to catch-up on life events before diving into their reading. Arrayed before them were titles like "The Disney Classic Story Book," The Big Hug Book" and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
The program, dubbed the OTTER program - Our Time To Enjoy Reading, started with a chance relationship between Army Col. Scott W. Ward, the officer-in-charge of USSOCOM's Army Reserve Element and Tinker Elementary School Assistant Principal Justin Hutcherson, both local youth baseball coaches in Riverview. Ward approached Hutcherson with the idea for the reading program while they were coaching together. The program wasn't a new concept for Ward, he started a similar program as a battalion commander in Gatesville, Texas at an elementary school there in 2013. The program is still in place today. Hutcherson quickly realized the program's potential and the pair teamed up to pitch the idea to Tinker's principal and other school officials in October 2019. School officials enthusiastically greenlighted the program and didn't take long before the program was underway according to Hutcherson.
"The school district is always looking for ways to strengthen relationships with the base and the community, so I knew this is something the district would be interested in," Hutcherson said.
Although Tinker is located on MacDill Air Force Base and was originally opened under the U.S. Department of Defense, it has been part of the Hillsborough County Public School District since 1952 serving the families of military members who live on the installation.
"The district has done a great job at collaborating with the base," Hutcherson said. "This partnership is just one more way to extend and strengthen the connections between the base and the school."
In addition to helping further strengthen ties between the school, the base and the military families it serves, important relationships are also being forged between the students and the service members according to volunteer reader Staff Sgt. Shaneka Ricks. Ricks, who serves as a supply sergeant at USSOCOM's Army Reserve Element, said since volunteering she and others have been able to create bonds enriching the lives of both the students and the volunteers.
"I've seen an improvement in their reading skills and in their personalities." Ricks said. "I've watched them come out of their shells and grow and be more expressive. It's been very personally gratifying to be able to assist in helping these kids improve their reading skills and also grow as young people. I've talked with the other volunteers who have said the same thing."
By many accounts the program appears
to have accomplished what Ward initially set out to achieve. Ward said his goal
in launching the OTTER program at Tinker was twofold: Firstly, to help
children become better readers and secondly to provide an opportunity for USSOCOM’s
Army Reserve Soldiers to contribute to the MacDill community and to give his
soldiers monthly opportunities to bond through collective efforts outside of
the normal daily scope of military operations.
Although the program has been running
for only a few months, according Katrina Cortez, a Tinker K-8 media specialist
who helps run the program, the potential impact on the students could last a
lifetime. Cortez said the program’s low-stress and fun approach to reading
could help inspire students into adulthood by providing an opportunity for them
to separate reading from school work and instead focus on the joy of reading
“These opportunities help get the students
excited about reading,” Cortez said. “This is an experience where they don’t
associate reading with work - there are no tests or follow-on questions after
they read. They are just reading for the joy of reading. This positive
experience with reading can in some small way potentially carry with them into adulthood
and may keep them reading by choice throughout their lives.”
In addition to impacting the
volunteer readers and students at Tinker the OTTER program’s influence may extend
well beyond the walls of the school according to Tinker literacy coach Veronica
Schaffner who recently recounted the OTTER program’s successes to other
literacy coaches from around the Hillsborough County School District.
“I had an opportunity to share some
pictures and our experiences here with this program to other literacy coaches
in the distirct,” Schaffner said. “There was a lot of excitement from them
about the potential to bring something like this to their schools.”
Schaffner said she hopes that others
who hear about the OTTER program within Hillsborough County and beyond can be
inspired by the program.
“It doesn’t even have to be with the
military, it could be with a local business or organization who wants to
contribute to their community,” Schaffner said. “I hope that others who hear
about this program can be inspired and see how easy it can be to take an idea
and make it happen.”
Six-year old Tinker Elementary student and OTTER
program participant, Everett, didn’t concern himself with what all the adult’s
intended purposes were for the program, he said the reading program is just
“fun” to him.