By Leisha Grebinski
We stood in line for ice cream. My Little Sister Letecia stared blankly at
the large, illuminated menu. All the usual flavours were there—chocolate chip cookie dough, tiger-tiger, cherry cheesecake, and my favourite, pistachio. But Letecia couldn’t decide.
“Have you made up your mind?” I asked.
Letecia just shook her head, eyes gazed downwards as her cheeks turned a soft shade of red.
At the time, my Little Sister was 10 and I started to realize what was happening. She couldn’t read the menu. Strawberry was too hard for her to sound out, let alone words like chocolate or vanilla. So, there she stood, hands stuffed into her blue jean Capri pants, unable to order an ice cream cone.
It took me a while to realize how much difficulty my Little Sister was having with reading. She never wanted to fill out the evaluation forms we got each month at the Big Sisters events. Without an explanation, she just told me to do it. She would quietly help me, but she never wanted to be the one holding the pen.
To me, she just seemed like a quiet girl. As an only child she never had to fight to be heard so I figured she was just being shy.
It was because she couldn’t read.
“Sometimes I get embarrassed,” she told me. “Because I can’t really read. It’s hard for me to read.”
It broke my heart, but I knew with enough patience and determination, Letecia could learn to read.
Letecia and I started visiting the library. I wanted to do as much reading as I could with her. We took out a stack of children’s books meant for children either 5 or 6 years old. Letecia didn’t care. She flipped through the colourful illustrations, and took the time to sound each word out.
During my time with Big Sisters, I realized Letecia was not an alone. Many of the children in the program struggle to read. Some come from families where the parents speak another language, others from singleparent homes, and other children slip through the cracks at school.
Rebecca Haugen can attest to this. As the program director of YWCA Big Sisters of Regina, she sees many of the children reading below grade level.
“We have seen so many kids who are in grade five or six and they are reading at a grade one maybe a grade two reading level,” she says.
Even Rebecca’s own Little Sister struggled to read.
“It started out with things like recipes or we would be looking at a sign and I realized she couldn’t read at all,” says Rebecca.
Rebecca decided to start an after-school tutoring program. She called it Big Boost and she encouraged many of the Little Sisters to participate.
“I hope they have a little bit of fun reading,” she says. “And it’s so important. I just know that if you can’t read math questions in high school, then you can’t get a job. It becomes this huge barrier and it means life is going to be very difficult if you can’t read.”
Letecia and I have kept reading together and she tries to go to Big Boost as often as she can. I have watched Letecia gain the confidence she needs to succeed not only in school, but in life.
She now grabs the pencil out of my hand so she can fill out the Big Sister evaluation forms. She tries to read me everything that falls into her hands—school handouts, movie stubs, and theatre programs. She may not get all the words, but she’s at least sounding them out. And she’s able to order a large ice cream cone all on her own.
Leisha is a Big Sister in Regina.
She also produces radio for CBC Saskatchewan.