Bear Share: Virtual reading program nets bears for 5,000 local students

Sue Guinn Legg • Updated Sep 30, 2019 at 11:44 PM

The United Way of Washington County’s new virtual volunteer mentoring program for early grade readers is continuing to catch attention.

Earlier this year, the innovative Vello program, in which volunteers help young readers gain skills from the comfort of their homes or offices, was recognized with a Governor’s Volunteer Star Award.

And last week, the program paid off with the presentation of 5,000 Renuzit Snuggle bears — enough bears to share with every kindergarten through third-grade student in Washington County and Johnson City schools.

United Way President and CEO Kristan Spear, who spent more than a week delivering the bears to classrooms across the city and county, said the gift was intended to add a soft and fragrant reading buddy to the ground breaking program that is already making strides.

“Reading is so important for our elementary school students, and having a friend to read to makes it even more fun. We are so thankful to Renuzit Snuggle for thinking of our students to receive this donation. Our Vello program is in many of the schools and we hope that the bears will be an added addition.”

According to Spear, because of its innovative approach to early reading mentoring — kids in first, second and third grade classrooms spend about an hour a week reading e-books with their Vello mentors via computer — and to volunteering, the Vello program has received some national attention.

And when the folks at Renuzit Snuggle home office in Arizona learned the details, they contacted the local United Way with a request to be a part of it. “They contacted us and asked if we wanted 5,000 bears that were left over from a promotion they had done. We made them Snuggle reading buddies,” Spear said

Piloted in eight second-grade classrooms here last school year, Vello has since expanded to six schools and two after-school programs. And, for the first time this school year, the program has been opened to high school students at Science Hill, David Crockett and Daniel Boone who are earning volunteer credit hours for Tennessee Promise scholarships Vello reading with younger students during school hours.

Vello’s expansion into after-school programs and its inclusion of high school volunteers were two more winning factors with the folks at Renuzit Snuggle, whose bear shipment arrived in mid-September.

Delivery began Sept. 16 with a Share the Bears kickoff day at Jonesborough Elementary School, and wrapped up late last week after many classroom visits by the United Way.

In presenting the bears, Spear and her helpers told the children they had to give the bears lots of snuggles and they had to read them a bedtime story every day. The feedback they have gotten so far has been well worth the effort.

From teachers and parents, Spear has gotten word that the students are indeed reading out loud to their bears. And for some low-income students, the Snuggle Bears are the only stuffed animal they have.

“We can’t thank Renuzit enough. It’s amazing the impact these bears have had.”

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