Smart Bears promote reading
For more than 30 years Marie Bentley and her group of volunteers have visited classrooms across the state with a reading initiative virtually no kindergarten student can ignore.
Bentley and her Smart Bear program returned to Thomasville Primary School on April 24, bringing kindergartners stuffed animals attached with a message: Love to read.
All of TPS's 232 kindergartners received a handmade teddy bear wearing a backpack with a book inside as part of the Smart Bear initiative designed to encourage reading. Bentley started the program 32 years ago and this reading labor of love is made possible through volunteers and public donations.
"I love to read and I want the children to read," Bentley said. "I enjoy doing it. I enjoy the children."
Smart Bear volunteers stitch, cut and sew 5,000 bears a year by hand, using donated and recycled materials. Many of the volunteers have been with the program for decades, including Carrie Medlin, a 90-year-old blind woman who stuffs the bears using her sense of touch. Bentley estimates each bear takes five hours to make.
Due to a lack of funding and a lack of volunteers, however, Bentley, who gives students a presentation on how the bears are made beforehand, worries how much longer the program will be around.
"Everyone is aging out," said Bentley. "If somebody is willing to take it over, we'll gladly let them do it."
What little money is available is used to purchase books. Bentley said the program has expanded over the years to include six counties and even beyond. Smart Bears visited Aruba, Virginia and South Carolina.
Paula Gaylord, ESL facilitator with Thomasville City Schools, said the program fits in with the school system's drive to put more books into children's hands.
"Its been wonderful knowing that come back for us," Gaylord said. "We care very much about getting reading material into the homes of our children. All of the children can benefit from having additional reading material in their homes. We're wanting to promote reading and get parents involved with their children's reading."
TPS Principal Angela Moore said any program that encourages reading is welcome.
“It’s a wonderful program because it allows the students to have their own book,” Moore said. “We’re always talking about literacy and how important it is. Some of our students don’t even have books at home. Any time we can put a book in their hands, we’re thankful for it.”
For more information on the Smart Bear program, call Bentley at 288-0130.
Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or firstname.lastname@example.org.