Volunteers recruited from the Susi Q Senior Center spend some of their afternoons each week as substitute grandparents, reading and drawing with second-graders at the Boys and Girls Club.
Because some children learn to read through singing, the 22 senior volunteers rely on an illustrated book with a poetic text, “You Are a Very Special You.” It has been translated into Mandarin and Spanish as well.
“We don’t put consonants together,” explained the book’s author, local resident Elsa Brizzi, who developed and manages the Intergenerational Literacy Project, now finishing its second year. “The adult does not instruct, but rather participates with the child,” she said.
The research-focused program is designed to assist the students to develop and enhance their literacy, but the initiative accomplishes much more.
“To see the relationships develop between the mentors and students is what it is all about,” said Pam Estes, the club’s executive director. “There is so much pride instilled in the kids throughout the program and just as much purpose given to the volunteers.”
The program’s success builds on the breadth of Brizzi’s experience as an educator. She has worked as a bilingual teacher in many grades, served as a guidance counselor and helped develop teacher-training programs for the California County Office of Education. For 13 years she worked for Head Start and collaborated with Cerritos College to create a pre-school teacher-training program. Brizzi also served as an adjunct professor of organizational and development behavior at the Orange County satellite of the University of San Francisco.
“The Special You Reading Club,” as the kids call it, begins again in August and Brizzi is recruiting for a new crop of volunteers. They must submit to background checks, and then are selected, trained and paired with a child who they will mentor for an hour once a week.
This year, the children’s parents will be included in the process and the kids will create their own book in the 10-week class, which will be presented at the “Authors and Illustrators” event at the Laguna Beach Library.
Families and friends will be invited to hear the young authors read from their own books about “their specialness.” Their books will be added to the children’s collection of the library where the budding writers can experience the satisfaction of other children reading their stories.
Education is just one passion in Brizzi’s life. Her Laguna Beach home is filled with her art projects, including silk-screened banners reflecting her political beliefs, clay sculptures she has made, welding projects and a garden filled with fruit trees, fish and plants of many varieties.
When she isn’t at the Boys and Girls Club or working on art or in the garden, Brizzi teaches a water aerobics class for the Arthritis Foundation. She also serves on the boards of the Woman’s Club of Laguna Beach, Laguna Outreach for Community Arts and the American Association of University Women.
“Elsa’s enthusiasm is totally contagious. She knows how to make things happen and has had a huge impact on our community, in lots of different ways. She is like magic!” Estes added.
Adapted from a submission by Margot Rosenberg.