By Jennifer Zardinejad

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State test scores released last month by the Oregon Department of Education show that 54% of third graders did not meet state reading benchmarks last year, including 52% of third graders in Crook County, 40% of third graders in Deschutes County and 57% of third graders in Jefferson County.

Here’s why it matters: Third grade is a critical turning point when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Research proves that children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers, and for children living in poverty, that number jumps to six times less likely.

Lower literacy rates don’t just hurt individual children; they hurt us all. They impact the future health and prosperity of Oregon. They add strain on social and health services, impede our economic growth and weaken our workforce.

Reading is a crucial gateway skill that paves the pathway for successful futures. Without it, kids are less likely to graduate from high school or find gainful employment as adults, leading to a host of additional hardships. Building a strong foundation of literacy can change a child’s life trajectory and can help prevent and alleviate issues of poverty, homelessness, hunger and injustice.

We have an opportunity to work together to address this challenge, and community-based organizations are an important part of the puzzle, providing critical supports and services for Oregon kids and families every day.

At SMART Reading, helping kids become strong, confident readers is our mission and purpose. We’re a children’s literacy nonprofit that provides children two ingredients critical for literacy and learning success: one-on-one reading time and access to books.

We mobilize volunteers to read with pre-K through third graders and provide each child with two new books each month to keep and build their personal library.

Since we were founded in 1992, with eight programs in Bend and Portland, we’ve expanded across the state, engaging nearly 140,000 volunteers to read with over 222,000 children and putting more than 2.8 million books into the hands, and homes, of kids across Oregon.

Importantly, we know SMART Reading works. By the end of the year, two-thirds of our students are reading on grade level compared to fewer than half statewide, and over 80% show improved confidence, social and emotional skills, and reading motivation.

Sometimes, it’s baffling to know where you can make a real difference in today’s world with problems that seem big and insurmountable. We make that easy. By helping children build confidence, literacy skills and a love of reading — right in our own neighborhoods — we can reduce the negative ripple effects of illiteracy and help children realize their full potential.

Here in Central Oregon, SMART Reading volunteers aim to serve 900 kids in the 2019-20 school year and give away over 12,000 new books — but we need more help. I invite you to join us and start making a reader today by signing up to volunteer one hour a week at a SMART Reading program near you. The kids gain skills, confidence and a lifelong love of learning, and you gain the powerful fulfillment of making a difference in the life of a child in our community.

Visit to learn more about volunteering with SMART Reading.

— Jennifer Zardinejad is central area manager for SMART Reading.