UCR Students Work to Bring Literacy to Underserved Areas

Junior Allison Ibarra of Chino Hills leads volunteer group that teaches Riverside youngsters how to read

head and shoulders photo

Junior biological sciences major Allison Ibarra created the Literacy Project at UCR to help improve child literacy rates in impoverished areas of Riverside. Photo by Ross French

RIVERSIDE, Calif. —  As a college student studying to become a doctor, junior biological sciences major Allison Ibarra was excited to begin volunteering at the Riverside Regional Medical Center, but was surprised when the head of the volunteer group told her that she needed to take a basic reading test before she could be placed in the hospital.

“She told me that she had to administer a basic reading exam to all the adult volunteers to gauge their reading level,” the Chino Hills native recalled. “It shocked me that adult literacy could be so low that this test was needed.”

It was shortly thereafter, in January 2012, that Ibarra and five other members of UCR’s American Medical Student Association (AMSA), using funding from the AMSA, founded the Literacy Project, designed to teach young people from disadvantaged backgrounds how to read and to promote the ability to read among young people.

“I noticed a stigma that has grown around reading for little children. Reading is associated with being uncool, nerdy, and socially awkward,” she said. “As an avid bookworm myself, I was appalled at this stigma and wanted to do something to help change it.”

Ibarra was also moved to act by data that linked low child literacy rates with impoverished areas. “I decided to make my stand to improve literacy in Riverside.

She spent a few months recruiting, organizing and training volunteers, and researched tips and techniques for teaching literacy to young people then began to work with young people. They raised funds to purchase stickers and small prizes as rewards for reaching reading milestones. Volunteers work with students on their grammar, reading comprehension and phonetics, but beyond that, they form a bond with the youngsters, becoming friends and mentors.

“We have had children come with us just to talk about their lives and to ask us questions about ours,” Ibarra said. “We try to serve as role models for the children and encourage them to pursue a college education. This helps make college a more realistic and tangible goal.”

The Literacy Project has grown to 25 volunteers and has worked with more than 200 children since the program got underway in June of 2012. They host sessions at five locations around the city: the Eastside Riverside Library/Cybrary, the Main Library, Cesar Chavez Community Center, Highgrove Elementary School, and the First Congregational Church.

Her efforts in the community have not gone unnoticed, both locally and nationally.

“Given all of her trajectory towards medicine, the fact that she’s spearheaded a successful literacy program to get young kids excited about reading, and also about their future potential in college, is very exciting,” said Scott Silverman, the coordinator for the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences Scholars Program and advisor to Ibarra. “I have no doubt that Allison will make the Literacy Project bigger and better over time, and will still be the driving force behind it even once she’s graduated.”

In addition, The Literacy Project won a $1,000 grant from TrueHero.org following a nationwide contest. Ibarra said that she hopes to use the money and future donations towards the purchase of books that can be used for lessons and perhaps as rewards.

“We’d love to get some simpler books for our K-3rd grade students, some introductory reading books for 3rd-6th graders, and some more challenging books for the older students,” she said. “For example, something like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which is a popular movie right now. The movie has the glamor, and maybe we can use that to help get students interested in reading the book that the movie came from.”

Ibarra said that the students hope to become a stand-alone organization at the beginning of 2014 and continue to accept donations that will help them reach that goal.

To contribute to The Literacy Project, contact them by email at theliteracyprojectucr@gmail.com.

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-4756
E-mail: john.warren@ucr.edu

Additional Contacts

Allison Ibarra
E-mail: allison.ibarra@email.ucr.edu

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