AUSTIN — The rock stars arrived outside Woodson Kindergarten Center in a yellow school bus at 11:48 a.m. Tuesday; another bus arrived minutes later.
Out stepped about 60 Hormel Foods Corp employees. They were giving up their lunch hour to read to more than 60 eager kindergarteners as part of the Everybody Wins program.
For some children, the 20 minutes spent with the volunteers might be the only solo time they get from an adult, Principal Jessica Cabeen said. "I remember as a teacher how powerful and impactful for the students it was," she said.
In classrooms, a teacher might read to all the children but it's not the same as the one-on-one time, Cabeen said. With Everybody Wins, the student can read to the adult, or the adult to the student, and the student chooses the book.
Everybody Wins began in the Twin Cities and gives students the full attention of one adult. One of its slogans is "One Child. One Mentor. One Book at a Time."
This is the first time the program has been used outside the Twin Cities, Cabeen said. Woodson is part of a six-week pilot that ends Tuesday. But in the Twin Cities, where the program is well established, it goes for 20 to 24 weeks, she said.
"Next year, we would like to increase the time," Cabeen said.
Everybody Wins targets schools with students from diverse ethnic backgrounds, she said. When she first asked about the program coming to Austin, program officials hesitated, assuming Woodson was mostly white, she said. When she told them that more than half of Woodson's students are students of color, Everybody Wins was interested, she said.
As for the readers, the students see them as celebrities, she said. "You should see the kids, the excitement that is there for Tuesdays," she said.
Katie Larson, Hormel's director of Organizational Development, coordinates the program for Hormel and is also a reader.
"You have this person that treats you like a rock star, they love the attention of adults," Larson said.
When Cabeen contacted her, "her enthusiasm was so infectious that I just couldn't say no," Larson said. The company pays for the buses to make it easier for the workers to get to Woodson and back.
Many of the students have two parents working and don't get as much attention as they would like, or have just one parent, she said.
Personally, she said, "I forgot what it's like to have the curiosity for reading," Larson said.
One of the readers last week was Dan Zielke, a substitute reader who is a Human Resources Department recruiter. "I'm a former teacher and like the idea of being in the classroom," he said. "That one-on-one time is critical."
He was a supervisor in the Hormel plant for three years and knows how odd shifts can be for parents who might not be home when their children are home, he said.
To read to Aiden Swenson, he brought along "Cars" and "Pinocchio" but it was up to Aiden what he would read. When he got there, Aiden did most of the reading in "Cars" while Zielke helped him. The week before, "he was so excited about seeing 'Toy Story,'" he said.
Natalie Baudler, who works in Hormel's Communications Department, has been reading to Wilmer Mendez who is bilingual. He was more reserved at first "but now, he's acting out all the things on the page," she said.
When she got into the classroom, she sat in a little green chair along with Wilmer and read "The Little Red Hen." When she read a story about a marching band, Wilmer pretended to play the trumpet.
Watching was Katie Bambrick, a paraprofessional. "The kids, they were quiet at first, but now they're opening up about their reading friends," she said.
Readers give the students confidence and "at that age, building them up is huge," Bambrick said.
The 20 minutes went quickly and soon the readers had to close the books and head for the waiting buses.
As they walked out, a small group of kindergarteners hopped up and down, waved, laughed and called out "Bye, see you next time."