EVART – Renee Tomshack spent a career in education. Nearly 15 years after retirement, the love of children sparked her return to the classroom — as a volunteer.

Now retired, Tomshack and her husband Pete, of Evart, volunteer for the Evart Reads program as guest readers and mentors at the elementary school.

The Tomshacks help compromise more than three dozen total volunteers for the initiative to expand reading in the community through a partnership between Evart Public Schools, the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District and the City of Evart. The goal is to have a community where everyone can read, books are easily accessible and reading is part of every day life.

“We heard about the program and both know reading is important to everyone,” Renee said. “I knew as an educator there were always needs and those needs are different for each child.”

“I'm still learning how to work with the little ones, when it comes to pronunciation,” Pete said. “It's so important for a child, every child, to read. You can't grow in this world without being able to read.

“They get to see they can go beyond their living room with a book in their hand. It's just exciting for us, and you can tell the kids really enjoy it by their response.”

The Tomshacks are reading superheroes.

The different facets of the first-year program Evart Reads – Reading Superheroes (classroom readers and reading mentors), Little Libraries, Read Around Town and Dolly Parton's Imagination Library – are all aimed at meeting the initiative's goals, said Jenny Rounds, Mecosta Osceola Personnel Cooperation Early Literacy coordinator.

“It's been a great start,” she said of the inaugural year of the program. “We're definitely doing it next year. There have been some things we weren't prepared for, but that's part of the learning process. We've become more efficient as the year has gone. It's been really amazing to see all the community volunteers and the amount of time each of them provide and how the community has accepted this program.”

Rounds and the Tomshacks proudly share stories about the impact they've seen on the students, as well as the impact on volunteers, school staff and the community.

“The community support is amazing,” said Renee. “It's good for the children to see adults enjoying a book, even if you're enjoying it on their level and reading it to them so they enjoy it. Hopefully, the children have adults read with that type of energy.”

“The guest reader program has all the children involved, and that's important,” Pete added. “To be a mentor, it's about finding that one key to have the child open up to reading.”

"The reading today is a lot more demanding than I remember," Renee said. "There are a lot more expectations at a younger age with the mandates in place.

"Some children are able to read and others aren't. I learned early in my career that reading is not a race, it's a journey."

Rounds said the reading mentors began the year with one session with a student, but many of them are doing two sessions.

“I'm getting really positive feedback from the staff,” she said. “Those students who get one-on-one help, whether it's just a little bit or needing some extra help, the teachers are seeing the difference in the student.”

For many of the volunteers, Rounds said, they get an opportunity to see the work the teachers are doing to help students.

“From there, you see a lot of the volunteers bend over backwards to help,” she said. “I think it's been an eye-opening experience for some of the mentors. They heard about the need for reading mentors to help these students, but now they have a face to go with that challenge. It puts it into perspective.”

There are now five Little Libraries around the community, and three more are scheduled to go in over the next couple of weeks, Rounds said. To match their goal of 10 Little Libraries, two more will be in place when the Story Walk opens May 22. The Story Walk is an interactive approach to reading a book, Rounds said, as local business will have passages from a book. As a child or family goes from one business to the next, they will be able to complete the book.

“The Lumberjack's Beard,” by Duncan Beedie, will be the first story in place. Rounds said the theme of “Things That Grow” will continue each month with a new story.

“Looking ahead, I definitely need to get more books for the Little Libraries, and encourage anyone doing spring cleaning to bring any books they find to the school,” she said. “If they bring them into the school, we can refill the Little Libraries as needed.”

Rounds added a little more than 100 kids from Evart are participating in the Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, with 12 local business around town having books available to kids.

As the classroom readers and mentors finish up the year this week, Rounds said she and the reading superheroes are ready the for the next school.

"We're going to be prepared, and always looking for more volunteers and more books," she said.