Summer Reading. Out of our comfort zone. (Opinion Piece)

In an effort to distribute more books to the community and engage on a more personal level with kids, we made the decision to partner with the Nashville Public Library in their Hero Summer Reading Program. Little did I know that the experience would largely change my perspective and interaction towards the people we serve.

Traditionally, Ride for Reading delivers books to kids in Title I schools, or schools in low income communities. Our riders arrive to a crowd of 600 plus screaming elementary students and their dedicated teachers. The air is full of energy, joy, and smiling faces. Students line up to pick their books and our readers have an opportunity to sit with a class and read their favorite books to them.

Smiles all around, the sun is out, and everyone feel good. There are always the expected troublemakers and class clowns who are quickly told to “get back in line” and are guided by a teacher who has built a level a trust with her/his students. All of our volunteers take pictures with the kids and we call the delivery a success.

School is out during the summer so instinctively we delivered to public libraries and local community centers in an effort to stay active.

We arrived at Watkins Park Library and there were no smiling faces, the sun was burning, and our volunteers did not take pictures with the kids. Something was different.

Ride for Reading did not arrive to welcoming crowds of cheering fans, instead we were being looked up and down with faces of mistrust. We all felt it and it was uncomfortable for the kids and for our volunteers.

Then it hit me. There were no teachers, no link of trust and it was not a controlled setting. The kids had no idea who we were and we came riding into their homes expecting them to be happy and cheerful. Would I have been cheerful and excited to see unknown people march into my home expecting me to smile back? Probably not.

After the initial shock, our volunteers gathered themselves and interacted with the kids. Painfully and awkwardly, we distributed books to kids we had never reached. We shed our expectation, put our phones away and got out of our comfort zone. We were nervously smiling. Was that good? Did they have fun? Were we successful?

We learned that building trust in the community is key. We understand that our mission is not just happy feelings and pictures of smiling kids, but also a hard and urgent matter. We saw the need to be actively engaged with the communities we reach instead of expecting them to come to us. Ride for Reading serves the community and as such, Ride for Reading needs to adapt to its needs.

We are excited for next year. A year where Ride for Reading will go deep in the trenches and will constantly reach to more children by any means necessary, we are here to serve because we are committed to seeing our youth improve. We ride to make a difference, even if we have to ride in dirt roads.

JC Torres

Executive Director of Ride for Reading