MODESTO — Norma Baker would tell you she isn't doing much, nothing special. But every child she's spent her lunch hours listening to would disagree.
Baker is a volunteer mentor, a grown-up who simply cares enough to show up. Every time. Without fail. She can make a promise like that because she's seen how much it means and because she has backup.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, Baker or teammate Linda Chrabas spends some quality time with Franklin Elementary fourth-grader Aineri Savala, an animal lover who willingly plows, word by word, through ever more difficult readers.
"We talk. We read. We do spelling games," Baker said. Her favorite part, she said, "is to watch the change when the light goes on, the sparkle in their eyes. You see that they're getting it."
Chrabas said she loves to see Aineri's determination to be a good reader. "I just appreciate how she doesn't give up," she said on a recent Wednesday at Franklin. In fact, she says with a sideways glance at the student, Aineri has gotten so much faster at reading that she must have been practicing over winter break.
The answering grin brings two dimples into sharp relief, although Aineri's head stays bowed to her task.
Franklin mentor coordinator Amy Mendez said 12 or 13 students at the school gladly miss lunch recess twice a week to spend time with their grown-ups. "I think it's that one-on-one attention. A lot of our kids don't have that adult time," Mendez said.
Teachers nominate youngsters for the program, picking those with good hearts but great needs. Mendez said all of the Franklin pupils have improved academics, better attendance and attitude. Some, she said, "have turned 360 degrees."
One youngster in particular, she said, has turned his school life around. "He's a completely different kid in the classroom. He was in trouble all the time," she said.
"There's something about someone who's a business person being very interested, someone who goes above and beyond for them," Mendez said.
Chrabas first volunteered at a church after-school program, but decided she wanted more one-on-one time to get to know the kids. Baker came to be a volunteer through the Stanislaus County Employee Mentor Program, which in 2012 linked 104 adults with children who needed one.
Many of those adults work in teams of two or three to manage the demands of busy lives, said program head Keith Boggs, Stanislaus County assistant executive officer. Many volunteers have been with him for years, some from when the program started 13 years ago.
"The mentors find they get more out of the experience than the students," Boggs said.
And the students get a lot, said Franklin Principal Michael Brady. "Every one of them gets a boost in confidence. Some have dramatic improvements in behavior and effort," Brady said.
He added, "It's another adult coming to spend time with them, and it just makes all the difference."
The program helps many schools and community groups. For more information, call (209) 652-1514 or (209) 525-4375 or visit http://employeementors.com.