A Novel Way To Get Kids Excited About Books: Reading To Shelter Cats

By Kim Hughes 2/13/14 | www.samaritanmag.com

Sean, 10, son of Book Buddies founder Kristi Rodriguez, has increased confidence reading in front of his classmates, after practising on cats.
What to do when kids hate reading or are a little bit behind? Why not get them to read to cats? Yes, cats. And what to do when kids love reading and love cats? Get them to read to cats too. The simple yet winning concept called Book Buddies is offered by the Animal Rescue League (ARL) of Berks County, Pennsylvania.

It works like this: children in grades one through eight are invited into the animal shelter to read aloud to the cats awaiting adoption. While the kids read to the shelter cats, the felines frolic and bask in the attention. The kids improve their reading skills by practicing before a non-judgemental audience and the cats remain socialized while anticipating their forever homes. Ta-da or meow, as cats would say.

“Seeing those kids smiling and engaged and hearing those cats purr, you know both groups are getting something out of it,” Kristi Rodriguez, volunteer/program coordinator with ARL, tells Samaritanmag from her Birdsboro, PA office.

Rodriguez was responsible for bringing the program to the animal shelter last August, where it promptly became a local — and then international — sensation with media requests coming in from as far away as Australia and Britain.

Of course, the heart-warming images of kids reading to cats makes the story an easy sell. But more vitally, Rodriguez confirms that shelters across the U.S. have also been in touch to explore launching similar programs.

“I had been Googling program ideas for animal shelters,” Rodriguez recalls. “I came across an article about a shelter out west that had children reading to dogs. That wasn’t logistically possible at our shelter so I thought we could try it in our cat room.

“I don’t know where the idea originated,” she says, “but I couldn’t find anyone else doing it. For us, it was a unique opportunity. On a personal note, my 10-year-old son Sean has struggled with reading. I brought him into the shelter; he starting reading to the cats and, in just a few months, his confidence in reading in front of his classmates greatly improved.”

Book Buddie poster child Colby Procyk, 7, reads to a ginger tabby.
Robust community outreach was the next step for the Book Buddies program, and Rodriguez says she laid out the concept in a program overview which was then “sent out to every school in Berks County, to public libraries in the area as well as speech therapy businesses thinking this would be a great opportunity for those children as well. Plus shelters are always looking for new ways to improve our outreach to our communities so potential adopters will come in.”

These days, Rodriguez estimates between 30 and 40 children a month are regular cat readers. Seven-year-old Colby Procyk is one of those children. As mom Katie Procyk explains down the line from her home in Lyons, PA, Colby learned about the program from his maternal grandmother, who volunteers as a foster parent for the ARL’s Grey Muzzle Program, which works with older animals.

“My Mom said, ‘I am going to take Colby in.’ I said ‘Go right ahead,’ and he fell in love with it. We try and take him out about once a week — after school or maybe Saturday mornings — and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s just a great excuse for the kids to read.

“Colby personally has become so much more confident in his reading ability. He is so much more fluent and reading has become more natural for him,” Procyk says adding that their household is a bit of a menagerie with “three cats — all rescues — plus a rat and three chickens.”

And rather than take heat at school for his kindness towards the cats, Colby has become something of a celebrity, his picture — showing him deeply involved in a book as a sweet ginger tabby looks on — has become the flagship for the program.

Any temptation the kids may feel to toss their books aside and simply play with cats is tempered by the promise of prizes. For each five books they finish of any length, the children are awarded a ticket which may be redeemed instantly for a small prize (bookmark, bracelet, key ring) or added to a jar for eligibility for a bigger monthly raffle (free dinner at local restaurant).  Prizes are generally donated by local businesses.

Cheyenne Boyle has a captive listener.
While kids struggling with reading and speech impediments are obvious benefactors of the program, the ARL’s Rodriguez says latchkey kids, kids seeking accessible activities, animal lovers and those unable to have pets at home also benefit.

“It can be such a struggle for parents to find activities their kids can participate in that are close to home, convenient and free. And we try to make it as convenient as possible; we say come in anytime. There are no set days or times. It’s an open-door invitation to participate.

“We get public-school kids, parochial-school kids, home-schooled kids. We also get Girls Scout groups. We do get siblings of kids that are reading where Mom and Dad will read to the younger ones while the older kids read with the cats. It’s something the whole family can get in on.”

As for that ginger cat that helped make Colby Procyk and the ARL’s Book Buddies program a viral juggernaut?

“A few weeks after that photo was taken last October, we went back to adopt the cat,” Katie Procyk explains, adding at that point, the feline had been assigned number, not a name. “That very morning he had been adopted out. Literally a few hours before we arrived the cat went to his forever home. So it was bittersweet but still a happy ending.”

“There just is no downside to this story,” the ARL’s Rodriguez says. “So many parents have contacted us saying they have seen an improvement in their children’s school work and self-esteem. We take pictures, hang them on a bulletin board or post them to Facebook and then the kids’ classmates see them and it becomes a real booster for the kids.”

And doubtless a booster for the cats, too. 

Air Jordan

* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.