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  • By Dana Casadei

Shari Cohen

Shari Cohen has some tips for people looking to volunteer with children.

“It takes patience. It takes an ability to see things from a child’s point of view – which isn’t always easy to do. Take it slowly, give a lot of positive feedback, and be willing to give a child a lot of positive recognition,” she said.

Cohen knows what she’s talking about. She was named one of the Association for Women in Communications’ Detroit chapter’s eight Literacy Heroines this past May. The awards, which were presented in June, went to AWC members who serve literacy programs through libraries, schools, and non-profits, while also contributing to the success of AWC’s “Driving Literacy in the D” initiative.

“I was happy and surprised,” the Bloomfield Township resident said about the award. “Normally, you don’t expect to get any public recognition for it, it’s its own award…so it was particularly nice that they recognized me for something I find meaningful.”

Cohen – who works as a communications consultant – has volunteered for many years, working with organizations like the Oakland Literacy Council, where she worked with immigrants and adults who lacked adequate literacy skills. She currently volunteers with children through the Detroit Public Schools Volunteer Reading Corp program. She’s been a part of the latter since 2009, and has worked primarily with those in preschool through second grade.

Cohen doesn’t have a grade preference – she just enjoys working with children, especially those who are receptive and she can see progress with. Each grade comes with its own bonuses, like how preschoolers tend to just be plain fun. With the preschoolers, Cohen said she works on skills like how to hold a book, follow along sentences, and ask questions about the photos, trying to get them to understand what it means to read. Then there’s sight words and learning to write with the kindergarteners before working on vocabulary and writing sentences with the first and second graders.

She said it’s exciting to watch a child progress and know she was a part of that. Cohen does admit, though, she’s only one factor in their progress.

“Clearly, being in school, and if they have a good teacher, it makes a big difference,” Cohen said.

It also helps when they get help at home. Cohen views her role as a person who is able to assist in filling in the gaps for those struggling to read and write.

Each week she shows up at Pasteur Elementary School in Detroit ready to go. Even on the days when it can be frustrating, which happens very occasionally, Cohen still believes every single one of those children she works with has the ability to learn how to read.

That mindset – along with loving to read since she was a small child – keeps her volunteering, something she doesn’t imagine stopping any time soon.

“I think that reading is critical for success in life,” Cohen said. “If you can read you can take yourself to places, but if you can’t read, you can’t fill out a job application, you won’t understand the labels at the grocery store.”

Cohen is able to give back to the school district she graduated from too, having attended Detroit’s Vernor Elementary School.

“I feel it’s important for somebody like me to do it,” she said, “Being successful in school is so important to the future, and if I can spare the time and the energy, I’m glad to help the district where I used to go.”

Photo: Laurie Tennent

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