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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI internship program puts 4,200 books in hands of children who need them

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KINGSTON, R.I. -- July 13, 2005 -- Access to books is essential to reading development, yet many children from low-income families have no books.

Thanks to University of Rhode Island student-mentors, children attending three Rhode Island schools have a half a dozen books to call their own. The three schools are: 1) the George J. West Elementary School in Providence where 90 percent of its 653 students qualify for free or reduced lunch 2) the Urban Collaborative Accelerated Program (UCAP) also in Providence where 70 percent of the 140 at-risk adolescents who attend the public middle school qualify for free or reduced lunches and 3) the Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative in Cranston where 27 children of immigrants complete their homework. Family income at the literacy site ranges from $0 to $20,000.

The URI students are part of the Mentor/Tutor Internship Program. They saw the need for books and found a way to get them. Cherie Aiello, the program’s energetic coordinator, applied for and received a First Book grant for 4,200 books. First Book is a national non-profit organization that gives children from low-income families the chance to own their own books from the First Book Campus Advisory Board, formed last year by Darshell Silva, then a graduate student working in URI’s Clearinghouse for Volunteers, a program of the Feinstein Center for Service Learning. The advisory board is a local chapter of the national First Book Program, which gives children from low-income families the chance to own their own books.

URI Political Science Professor Al Killilea created the program in 1998, an outcome of his membership in the South County Coalition Against Racism. The professor piloted the program with eight URI students of color to see if they could break down racial stereotypes in local schools by helping teen-age students who, feeling isolated, had the potential for truancy. The students earn academic credit. Cherie Aiello, then a parent volunteer for the South Kingstown School District, offered to help.

Since that time, the program has evolved and expanded under the guidance of Aiello. Today, there are more than 200 URI student-mentors in elementary through high schools from Westerly to Providence offering children friendship as well as a firm footing to keep them from slipping in their schoolwork.

While the youngsters are learning from their new books, the URI student-mentors have learned valuable lessons themselves.

“The experience convinced me to go into education,” said URI alumna Erica Sweitzer of South Kingstown, who was a mentor/tutor at George J. West for two semesters. “I think most of us fell in love with the placement, and didn’t participate in the program just for the credits.”

URI 2005 alumnus Colin McNulty of North Kingstown agreed. “I have a passion to work with kids,” he said, noting he was a mentor/tutor at UCAP. “I didn’t want to leave.”

Vanica Mei and her twin sister Vanary were mentor-tutors at George J. West. “We saw the reading levels improve,” she said. “We knew we weren’t wasting our time, that we were of some value.”

Photo caption
Al Killilea of Kingston, URI professor of political science and founder of the hugely successful Mentor/Tutor Internship program enjoys watching two George J. West Elementary School students select their books. The MTI program helped get the free books for the students. URI News Bureau Photo by Michael Salerno Photography.