Young attorneys give a head start to young children

VERO BEACH — When members of the Young Lawyers Division of the Indian River County Bar Association learned last fall that area schools had a desperate need for bilingual children’s books, they sprang into action.  In January, division co-chairs Doug Vitunac and Jeff Pegler were among dozens of affiliates from around the state who presented grant proposals at the Florida Bar’s Affiliate Outreach Conference in Tampa. 

Vitunac and Pegler received one of only two awards for excellence and were given a grant of $3,250 from the Florida Bar Foundation for the project – to purchase bilingual Spanish/English children’s books for distribution to three schools, Fellsmere Elementary School, the 41st Street Head Start and Dodgertown Elementary School.  

“It’s important for the kids to be able to read with their parents,” said Vitunac.  “It’s difficult for Spanish speaking parents when the books are just in English.”

Each sentence in a bilingual book is written in both languages, which may ultimately serve a dual purpose, by also helping the parents to learn to read in English.

YLD members began distributing the books this week to the schools, which each have a high population of students from Spanish speaking households.  Fellsmere Elementary was the first stop, with Cynthia VanDeVoorde Hall, Caitlin Rissman and Doug Vitunac reading to the children at two “Books and Tea Parties” in the school’s library.  In addition to a selection of books which will be added to their library, approximately 100 students, who had the highest independent reading scores in the Scholastic Reading Program, were each given books to take home.

Vitunac said that they wanted to purchase the majority of the books before summer vacation so that children can check the books out for their summer reading assignments.  Attorney Jeff Pegler, who is also running for School Board, is organizing an upcoming Dodgertown Elementary distribution.

Shannon Pope, a teacher at the 41st Street Head Start had initially identified the need for the bilingual books to Vitunac and was the impetus behind the project.  Vitunac was joined by attorneys Elizabeth McHugh and Caitlin Rissman for the second distribution – Reading Day at Head Start, where books will be added to a lending library.

The Head Start program is run by the Economic Opportunity Council of Indian River County and provides early education to children ages three to five years old, from economically disadvantaged families.

“All our Head Start centers are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and all have received a Gold Seal from the Department of Children and Families,” said Leonard Edwards, Head Start Director.  “Our students did very well with the Florida school readiness standards; all exceeded the cutoff.”

The air of excitement was palpable, as children oohed and aahed over all the colorful and exciting books, but then quickly settled down with rapt attention, listening as the attorneys read to them.  The children also showed off their alphabet and number skills; every single child could count to 100.

Pope has been with Head Start for 15 years, 11 of those years in Indian River County.  “My mentor was Natalie Sanders; she’s still my mentor,” said Pope of the Education Coordinator for Head Start.  “She probably does the job of 10 people; she’s amazing.  She’s everywhere all the time, visiting all the sites.”

Their entire day is filled with learning, from traditional classroom subjects to social skills such as conflict resolution.  “We prepare them for kindergarten and they’re ready; they’re more than ready,” Pope said proudly.  “We teach our children to be independent.”

The children showed off their manners by setting the table, washing their hands and politely carrying on conversations during a delicious pizza lunch, courtesy of the teachers, to mark the special occasion.

At the end of the day everyone went home happy – the children, who were eager to enjoy their new books, the young attorneys who enjoyed watching their enthusiasm and the passionate teachers, who are dedicated to the success of their students. {igallery 206}

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