Reading Virtually to Newcomer Children

Inspired by IBBY’s Children in Crisis program, and in response to the increasing number of refugee claimants arriving in Toronto, IBBY Canada launched a children’s reading program in spring 2018. Connecting volunteer readers with young refugee claimants and newcomers staying in shelters, the in-person program shared the joy of reading and provided a welcoming connection to children new to Canada.

Each week, IBBY volunteer readers brought stacks of books into the shelters and spread them out on tables for children to flip through and explore. With their selections in-hand, children gathered around volunteers and the reading began.

Then all our lives changed. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the need for connection — and volunteer readers stepped up for the virtual challenge when the reading program moved online in September 2020 in partnership with COSTI.

For Mary Beth Leatherdale, Past President of IBBY Canada and one of the founders of the program, the virtual reading was extremely gratifying. “Reading virtually required volunteers to learn new strategies for selecting and sharing books not to mention navigating the occasional technology glitch. However, the rewards of the online program far outweighed any challenges. Reading with one family allowed us to get to know the children much better than we would in our larger, drop-in sessions. Each week, I looked forward to our sessions — reading, laughing and learning together — and I know the other volunteers felt the same way.”

Mirna El Sabbagh, General Manager, Stakeholder Engagement for COSTI, speaks to the importance of programs such as this:

“One of our main goals at COSTI is to help ease some of the transitional challenges faced by newcomers when settling into Canadian culture. Two of the main components of successful newcomers’ integration is learning the language and building a social network.  Partnering with like-minded organizations like IBBY helps COSTI’s newcomer clients enhance their English-language skills and build their social networks.”

Further, Mirna tells of the benefits of the program for parents and children:

“Almost all parents come to Canada because they want to provide their children with an opportunity for a better life. Our partnership with IBBY helps families feel welcomed and gives them a few tools to start a successful integration journey in their new home, Canada. The children like the program because it’s helping them connect with their new community outside school setting. They are practicing English and learning about new topics related to Canadian culture.”

With thanks to CANSCAIP for extending the call for more volunteers, the virtual program is expanding to reach more children and families — and share the joy of reading.

Contributed by: Patti McIntosh

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