Reading mentor joins ‘stick figure’ family portrait

During the school year, pastor Steve Burnette spends time every week with his “reading buddy” at a local elementary school.

“It’s amazing how you can become a strong voice in these children’s lives [by being] an adult who cares and demonstrates love to them just 30 minutes a week,” said Burnette.

Burnette’s church, First Baptist of Williston, just finished its third year of a ministry that pairs adult volunteers with first-graders who are below reading level. The program, called “Reading Buddies,” is about more than literacy, he said. It also builds important relationships that convey love and support from the community.

Burnette’s student buddy, whom he describes as sweet and “a bright light,” lives with his single-parent mom, a grandmother and several siblings.

“I told him if he made a certain grade on a test he was taking, I’d come by the school and have lunch with him,” said Burnette. “He did well, so I brought a Happy Meal to celebrate together. When he realized I was going to the other side of the table, he came around so that he could sit beside me.”

Reading Buddy volunteers are encouraged to build relationships with their students, and Burnette asks church members to intentionally connect with their buddies’ families. The children are invited to church events, and some volunteers include their buddies in family activities such as going to the zoo.

One day, Burnette asked his buddy to draw a picture of his family as a way for him to learn more about them. The boy drew stick figures on the paper. As Burnette asked about each figure, the boy shared something special about them.

“We went through his family, but there was one more stick figure in the picture,” Burnette said. “I asked who the extra person was, and he said it was me. Already, he was including me as someone important in his life.”

First Baptist Williston reached 23 students through the Reading Buddy program last year. Burnette said school administrators reported that all the students improved their reading skills, and some increased their standardized reading test scores by as much as 30 points from fall to spring testing. The principal and teachers have requested Reading Buddies for students in all grades.

Community members are beginning to volunteer, including a 90-year-old woman who last year met with two different buddies. “She has a passion for these kids, and that’s all it takes,” said Burnette. “If you can listen to a first-grader read to you, and you have a love for the people Jesus died for and can pass a background check, then you have all the necessary qualifications to become a Reading Buddy.”

Volunteers are coached not to walk into the school preaching the gospel, but they can walk in acting like Jesus, Burnette said. That posture allowed for him to share the real meaning of Christmas with his buddy, his first introduction to the gospel.

According to Emory Hiott, education catalyst with the evangelism team of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, First Baptist Church of Williston, a small congregation of about 100 members, is an example of a church impacting its community through service.

“They are loving their community with the outstretched arms of Christ,” said Hiott. “So many beautiful relationships have been formed because of their willingness to cross the street and ask, ‘How can we help?’”

Said Burnette: “I’m seeing our people live life on mission, and the community is becoming open to our loving them. Sooner or later, as God is working with people, they will think, ‘God, I need you.’ Their next thought may be, ‘First Baptist is a church that has loved us.’”

“Reading Buddies has reoriented my life out of a Christian bubble to begin to see people as God sees them,” said Burnette. “They are the reason I’m here.”

“And, on a personal satisfaction level, I’ve learned that engaging individuals enlarges my heart. I now have a kid I wouldn’t have otherwise known who will run up and hug me if I see him on the street. That alone is witness to the gospel.”

— Julia Bell writes for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

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