Melba Flores used to hate reading. But now, she says, she can’t imagine her life without it.
“I’ll sacrifice anything for books, honestly,” she said. “If I had a day, I would get just as many books as I could and just sit here and read them and never move.”
Seven years ago, Flores began attending tutoring sessions at New Haven Reads, a nonprofit that aims to increase community literacy by offering free books and tutoring. A 15-year-old sophomore at New Haven’s Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, she said she once feared reading and received low grades. Now a book lover, she attributes her academic success to the program.
In addition to continuing work with her own tutors, Flores also tutors elementary school students once a week. According to Katherine Franchino, volunteer coordinator and director of one of three New Haven Reads branches, Flores is the first — and likely the only — student from the organization to go from needing a tutor to becoming one.
“Flores is our favorite success story,” Franchino said. “While her case is not typical, it’s now the goal.”
MORE BOOKS, BETTER GRADES
Although Flores said her reading and writing skills have significantly improved since she first joined New Haven Reads, she said she initially did not want the organization’s help.
She never considered herself a “born reader,” and as a Mexican-American who grew up in downtown New Haven, she did not have much exposure to English. But Flores’ mother brought her to the program at the recommendation of her second-grade teacher, who noticed Flores struggling with reading material in class.
“When I got to New Haven Reads, I saw all these books and I was like, ‘Mom, take me away,’ because I really hated reading,” Flores said.
After only a year with the New Haven Reads free tutoring program, which she attended four times a week, Flores said that she went from receiving “terrible” grades to becoming the salutatorian of her eighth-grade class at Nathan Hale Middle School.
In fact, she said she missed the valedictorian grade point average by only 0.6 points.
“Decimals, decimals,” her 11-year-old sister Sandy said. “Next time.”
Flores said language barriers — her first language is Spanish — initially made reading and writing difficult. But, she explained that working with New Haven Reads has since improved her English skills because the program provided more opportunities for her to practice the language.
Most students who come to New Haven Reads do not get the chance to read at home, Franchino said, adding that these tutoring sessions are generally the only time some students have to sit down and read a book out loud.
New Haven Reads began in 2003 to promote citywide literacy. Since then, the organization has expanded to include not only book distribution, but also free after-school tutoring.
The organization’s greatest contribution to the New Haven community is providing a convenient way for books to go from one home to another, according to Flores’ current history teacher Jesus Tirado. Unlike a library, Franchino said students can keep their books for as long as they want.
“Melba has always got a book,” Tirado said, adding that he believes New Haven Reads has given Flores a higher level of confidence in her academic abilities.
A NEW ROLE
After a few years in the program, Flores said she saw younger students struggling with reading as she once had. She realized that she could help, and two years ago started tutoring primary school students at New Haven Reads.
When she tutors, Flores said, she tries to use techniques that she learned from her first tutor: making reading fun and putting “some excitement in learning.”
After working with her tutor, even though she “never thought books would be much fun,” Flores said she started to enjoy reading because her tutor helped her understand how language can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
Some of her favorite books, for example, are those written by fantasy author Tamora Pierce and the “Harry Potter” series, which she said she read so frequently that her mother once had to hide them.
While the organization tutored 280 students in 2008 — five years after its founding — Franchino said it now serves 573 students and averages 741 tutoring hours per week. Still, education director Tanya Smith said in an email that over 200 kids are still on the waiting list for the organization’s tutoring programs.
Flores said it took her many years to decide to become a tutor because the “idea of actually tutoring was very scary.” Now, she said, she loves her new role: her experience with New Haven Reads has even convinced her to pursue a career that combines reading, writing and working with kids.
“Tutoring really makes me like kids,” Flores said. “Kids are so much fun. Their imaginations are still really wide and very open.”
Her English teacher last year, John Bernor, said Flores also helped her peers at Co-op High School with their essays after finishing her own.
As New Haven Reads continues its efforts to encourage reading among city youth, Franchino said she hopes more students will join Flores as tutors for the organization.
Only a sophomore, Flores said she will be nearby to help for the next two years, and perhaps even longer: she hopes to be a student at Yale.
Click here for more information on New Haven Reads and its work in the city.