Elaine Cole, a single mother of four who lives in Baltimore, worries about her 8-year-old son, Sir'Dionte, because he doesn't like to read. But Cole works full time and can't help her youngest child with his homework as much as she would like.
That's why she jumped at the chance to enroll Sir'Dionte, 10-year-old Sir'Mourtinay and 13-year-old Myeisha in the Maryland Humanities Council's "Family Matters" reading program.
Every Tuesday through this week, the Coles and several other west-side families have gathered at the Walbrook branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library to discuss important themes. Another group, co-sponsored by the Hampden Family Center, meets Thursdays at the Salvation Army in Hampden.
"I love it," said Cole at a recent meeting of the book group. "It's worked out well for [my children]. It gives us some time to spend together."
Founded in 1996 with a grant from the Margaret Alexander Edwards Trust, the program is designed to improve reading skills among children ages 9 to 15 who are reading below their grade level, as well as to encourage discussion about topics such as love, friendship and family relationships.
The two six-week programs are held in the spring and fall of each year in different areas of Baltimore, funded this year by grants from the RGK Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, St. Paul Companies and the William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund.
Belva Scott, the Humanities Council program director for Family Matters, said it is important for parents to stay involved with their children's reading.
"Often parents have not heard [their children] read," Scott said. "We want them to be courageous about their reading."
Every week, each family is given two books, which they keep to expand their home libraries. Scott said she chooses books that feature children as characters who achieve success or demonstrate positive traits that groups can talk about. She also wants books to have good illustrations that enrich discussion.
At the beginning of the session, each participant reads one page of the book out loud.
"I don't think children get enough opportunity to read aloud," Scott said. "As they become more comfortable with the group that's there, they are more comfortable [reading]. It gives them confidence."
Once the reading is complete, the group talks about the main points the author tried to make and how the book's illustrations relate to them. Parents and children alike are eager to express their opinions.
"Everybody gets heard," said librarian and author Mona DeGross. "There's never any laughing. Everybody in the room is very patient."
Scott attributes the cooperative atmosphere to DeGross and her colleagues. "The librarians ... are just dynamos," she said.
The comfort level shows, particularly at Walbrook, where sessions are led by Scott and DeGross.
At a recent session, the group discussed "Abuela," a story about a grandmother's relationship with her granddaughter. Participants took the theme to heart and enjoyed being challenged by the mixture of Spanish and English in the book.
"I like the active grandmother," laughed Jeanette Carter, who brings her daughter, Jocelyn, to the meetings.
The open discussion puts people at ease, Scott said, and allows them to get the most out of the program.
"I love it," said Eleanor Combs, who attends Family Matters with her daughter, Yolanda Alton, 13. "It's real inspiring. She loves to read, anyway, and it helps me a lot get back into it."