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Having a pen pal is no longer just for childhood entertainment and cross country communication, as Michelle Sullivan knows first hand. For the past three years she has been helping students in schools in under-resourced neighborhoods build reading, writing, and comprehension skills through In2Books, an online mentoring program that spreads a love of learning to young students.
After volunteering throughout high school and college for purely social reasons, Sullivan decided it was time to find a volunteer opportunity that spoke to her own interests and could make a significant difference in the lives of students from under-resourced neighborhoods. What she found was e-mentoring (long-distance mentoring through the Internet), which turned out to be a great fit for her busy schedule, her desire to have fun and her interest to help students who are less privileged.
The In2Books program, which began in 1997, pairs third- through fifth-grade children with carefully screened adult mentors. Both mentor and student read the same yearlong curricula of books, preparing the groundwork for an open discussion through online letters of themes and ideas that help strengthen the child's reading and writing skills.
In Sullivan's case, being an In2Books mentor also allowed her to tap back into her own love of reading.
"I enjoy getting letters from my pen pal and discovering which books we're going to read together. It's like being on a fun adventure together," she said. "I really believe that what In2Books is doing -- developing literacy skills -- is crucial to a person's success in school and ultimately in life."
In addition to helping build fundamental reading and writing skills, Sullivan also enjoys the relationship-building aspect of the program.
"Pen pals love to share about the books in their letters, but they also love sharing stories about their lives -- writing about their families, their pets, their pesky siblings, the sports they play, or the best vacation they've taken...." she said.
At one point Sullivan was paired with two pen pals at the same time, and she got to see just how much influence the reading assignments really have. Unable to avoid comparing the two, she noted that one child was "a real word dynamo" who wrote lengthy letters, while the other had less developed skills and struggled with his writing. She was worried about the second boy, until they were assigned to read Donovan's Word Jar by Monalisa Degross, the story of a boy who collects unique words.
The struggling boy was so intrigued that he began his own word journal, discovering and recording new words each day.
"That's when I knew he'd caught the spark -- the love of discovery -- that would drive his learning. And it did. Each letter he would use some of his new, BIG words from the dictionary and point them out to me so that I could learn them too."
In her day job, Sullivan manages the kids section at NationalGeographic.com, and thinks she is well-suited for the In2Books program because she is able to communicate with kids in a way that respects their ideas and encourages them to work to their fullest potential.
Taking her inspiration from the commitment and passion she's seen in friends, Sullivan encourages others "to find volunteer work that blends one's own interests, so you develop a real passion for it versus it feeling like something you have to do."
Looking for volunteer opportunities that match your interests and your busy schedule? Becoming an In2Books pen pal can be just the ticket. This and thousands of other opportunities are waiting for you today at VolunteerMatch.