Bethelehem at the reading camp

Female reading camp leader provides inspiration for girls while helping all children learn to read

By Alisa Philips, Senior Education Advisor, World Vision USA

(Photo credit: Meseret Gizaw / World Vision)

At age 19 Bethelehem Yonas is igniting girls’ and boys’ desire to read in the playful and colorful reading camp where she volunteers as a Community Literacy Leader (CLL).  She is one of over 11,000 CLLs that lead reading camps across six regions in Ethiopia. The intentional recruitment of female CLLs to balance gender dynamics is a well-noted achievement of the USAID/READ II project that World Vision implements in partnership with Creative Associates as lead. The overall goal of the project is to improve early grade students’ ability to read.

Learning can be fun!

Bethelehem and her fellow Community Literacy Leader serve in the Tereko Reading Camp, a community-constructed space in the urban center of Addis Ababa. While Bethelehem has not taught formally she says, “Supporting children is my passion since my primary school age.”  

It is her heart for young children and serving her community that peaked her interest to accept the challenge of becoming a CLL. Bethelehem explains, “I was nominated because I was always with kids. It’s not difficult to manage kids because I have experience from home – [for example] with singing and writing.” 

Singing and play are key characteristics of the teaching and learning experience for children at the reading camp. “They are very interested in coming to sing and read books,” says Bethelehem.

When the reading camp first began, she and her co-facilitator spent time assessing the reading proficiency of children in grades 1-3. It became clear that many children were struggling to read letters, words and paragraphs. Reading camps provide an opportunity for girls and boys to have additional time outside of school to interact with their friends and practice their reading in a structured, fun and playful space with the guidance of a CLL.

The Tereko Reading Camp has generated a great deal of excitement in the community, which has increased the enrollment in the reading camp. To maintain a child to facilitator ratio of 25:1, the reading camp functions in two shifts. Some of the core activities that have created the enthusiasm about reading camps are drawing pictures, ‘make and take’ crafts that children can bring home and share with their families, and the ability for children to borrow culturally-appropriate reading materials from the reading camp’s library. 

More than an after-school program

Bethelehem has found the training to be a CLL very beneficial. She really enjoyed delving into the technical aspects of the seven session activities within the reading camp and learning how to consider language issues. 

There is evidenced-based technical rigor in each part of the reading camp to engage girls and boys in the process of learning to read in a vibrant, joyful, stimulating, and colorful way.  Bethelehem recognizes that and appreciates the excitement that reading camp activity time and ‘make and take’ activities bring to children in the reading camp.

It is evident that Bethelehem enjoys her work and takes it seriously. She applies her learning to her facilitation, and she has even started organizing community-wide initiatives to expand opportunities to read. 

“We organize frequent read-a-thon events which can give opportunity for children to learn to read in a fun and competitive approach. Our reading buddies’ methodology is a good example of collaborative learning for struggling children by better performing ones.” 

Her beliefs and actions affirm that the reading camp setting should be different than the formal school.  They should always be - a safe and comfortable place where children can experience joy and play in a colorful print-rich environment to engage in the process of reading.

Seeing girls' literacy skills transformed

After just months of being a Community Literacy Leader, Bethelehem is encouraged by the transformation she is seeing in children.  She has seen, “Three reading camp girls at the age of 7 and 8 who haven’t been to the formal school attend reading camp sessions and now read letters and words properly.” This is a gratifying and motivating experience for her as a CLL. 

Being a CLL does not come without challenges. One of the ongoing challenges is around parent engagement. Parents have begun Parent Awareness Workshops to support reading and will need continued support to understand how best to allow time and space for reading at home.

"I am a role model for the girls in my community."

As a CLL, Bethelehem sees that parents should do more to keep the reading camp space clean for children to be safe and play. Local leadership has an important role in sensitizing the community on these matters to widen ownership of the reading camps as joyful and playful learning spaces.

For those parents who are skeptical about allowing girls to attend, reading camps are also positively addressing girls’ attendance through the presence of female facilitators, which has motivated parents to allow girls to participate. 

It was noted in the READ II Rapid Assessment: Gender and At-Risk/Vulnerable Children that in schools there is a ‘paucity of female leadership and opportunities.’  Bethelehem, together with her fellow CLL are defying the odds and demonstrating what it means to be a female leader in their community. 

I am a role model for the girls in my community for I am currently studying accounting in a private university to fulfil and live my dream. Again, I am volunteering in the READ II project to support children’s education. I usually tell girls in the neighborhood and Tereko Reading Camp my primary school experiences to succeed in my education. I feel this motivates them to stay in school and follow my footsteps.” 

On this International Day of the Girl Child we celebrate girls everywhere – including Bethelehem – as they inspire, break boundaries and create the future. We must continue to identify, encourage and support pathways for young women and girls to unleash their gifts and make lasting contributions to their communities.

DISCLAIMER: This story is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of Creative Associates International and its partners and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

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