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The Magic of Reading : Voluntarism: Rolling Readers rove area schools and shelters, hoping to replace TV and video games--if only for an hour.


It's storytime at the women's shelter: The radio is silent, the television blank; a baby's gurgling and an appliance's whir are Tracy Jabson's only competition.

She takes her place on a worn couch, reading aloud from the book "Curious George." And for an hour, children who may soon be off to another temporary home are lost in the world of books.

"I think it gives them an opportunity every week to be less concerned with living day to day," says Jabson, 25, a bail investigator who has read at the shelter for the last six weeks. "It takes them away with their imaginations."

Jabson is one of about 75 volunteers at the core of Rolling Readers, a program that each week introduces thousands of L. A. children to the wonders of reading.

The brainchild of a former auto-financing executive, the program began two years ago in San Diego, but expanded to Los Angeles following last April's riots. Since then, a growing cadre of volunteers has spent an hour each week reading to low-income children at shelters and schools throughout the area.

The novel program serves two purposes, says founder and director Robert Condon: It bridges the gap between communities that was highlighted during last year's turbulent spring, and introduces children to the joy of learning.

"We want to get these kids excited about reading," he says, noting the program's simple formula: one person, a few books and a little time. "Multiply that by thousands and you have a little magic."

Spreading such magic has become a mission for the affable Condon, who left his job to run his nonprofit organization full time. Reared in Los Angeles, Condon remembers how many friends could barely read after graduating high school. He went on to UCLA, eventually married and started a family, but says he never forgot those friends and how limited their lives must be.

"I always had it in the back of my mind I'd do something to help," says Condon, who has three young children.

After acquittals in the Rodney King beating trial sparked days of unrest in Los Angeles, Condon approached Rebuild Los Angeles (now called R LA), a group coordinating the post-riot cleanup and rebuilding effort. He explained his program, which by then was serving 6,000 low-income children weekly in the San Diego area. R LA officials introduced him to groups, such as the California Assn. of Realtors, willing to donate office space and funds to help start the program locally. By November, Condon was on his way.

Since then, five volunteer coordinators working out of a Mid-Wilshire office have helped schedule volunteers who read to about 4,000 children--from preschoolers to sixth graders--in the Los Angeles area each week.

Condon acknowledges that reading aloud to children has often been cast aside in an age of video games and television. And many parents simply don't have the time, energy or interest to read to their children.

But many educational experts still trumpet the benefits of reading aloud, saying it teaches children to use their imaginations and develop language skills.

Young listeners, though, are not the only ones learning from Rolling Readers. Volunteers benefit as well.

Bob Achen, 76, says he loses himself in the wide-eyed fascination of his preschool listeners at Sylvan Park Children's Center in Van Nuys.

"I get out of myself completely," says the retired insurance agent. "I'm in another world when I'm sitting there looking at that book, trying to reach them."

As a boy growing up in the Midwest, Achen remembers his mother reading to him. And he in turn read to his three children. But nowadays, he says, "A mother or dad who's working doesn't have much time to do much reading, so the kids have to get it from someone else or they're not going to get it. . . . If kids can't read, they don't have a chance."

Jeremy Toback, 26, says his volunteer efforts have shown him that doomsday predictions about L. A.'s youth are premature and, perhaps, unfounded.

"There's a sort of apocalyptic tone to the whole Los Angeles riot (discussion)," says Toback, a rock guitarist who reads to fifth-graders at Betty Plasencia Elementary School. "And what I'm seeing at this school is much more hopeful than that."

Toback says he is also learning about the immigrant experience through the eyes of many first-generation Latino and Asian students.

"My ties to the homeland are just through stories," says Toback, whose grandparents were Russian and Polish immigrants. "It's different for these kids. I'm seeing something for the first time."

It's an important lesson, he says: "Part of our problem is that one of the American ideals is having this house where you're isolated--your piece of land, your house in the suburbs. You go to work, come home and never deal with the things in between."


Many of Toback's listeners read below grade level, says Scott Lee, special-programs coordinator at Plasencia. But simply reading to them can help some catch their peers.

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