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Pima County library program recognized by first lady Laura Bush

Eight-year-old child mentoring program is awarded $10,000 national prize; school skills improve

Jade Convery (center) enjoyed mentoring with the Pima County Library's Word Journeys so much that she went on to a teaching career. Word Journeys is being recognized in Washington, D.C.

Jade Convery (center) enjoyed mentoring with the Pima County Library's Word Journeys so much that she went on to a teaching career. Word Journeys is being recognized in Washington, D.C.

Being the new kid on the block can be tough.

Several Amphitheater Public Schools students had it even tougher by being the new kids in the country.

“Amphi’s been having a challenge with some of the new refugee kids not mixing with the American kids,” said area author Marge Pellegrino, who had a solution at her fingertips.

The Pima County Public Library’s Word Journeys, an after-school program Pellegrino created eight years ago, has been so successful with students that it was chosen as one of 18 finalists in the national 2008 Coming Up Taller Awards.

Word Journeys was selected from more than 350 entries and 50 semifinalists around the country and will receive $10,000 to further its endeavors.

“It’s pretty humbling,” Pellegrino said in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., where she was to accept the award from first lady Laura Bush on Friday. “It’s wonderful for the library to allow me to push this program forward.”

Elementary and high school students meet at Woods Memorial Library, 3455 N. First Ave., where they use the day’s theme to create individual and group projects.

The younger students are then coupled with the older ones for one-on-one mentoring.

“Now the refugee kids and mainstream kids are able to say hello,” Pellegrino said. “They’ve shared their writing and program activities all year long.”

Refugees are not the only ones who benefit from the program.

“I like meeting the kids and teaching them,” said Amphitheater High School senior Jennifer Ngo, 17, who has been a program mentor for two years.

Pellegrino chose Ngo to accompany her to the award ceremony because of Ngo’s perfect attendance and dedication to the program.

Ngo said the requirements for being a mentor include being good with kids, an enjoyment of teaching them and one more important qualification.

“Do you laugh and smile?” she asked. “You can’t be serious all the time. You’ll scare them away.”

Pellegrino said program participants have shown improvement in their reading, writing and communication skills.

“Can you imagine a first-grader standing in front of a room reading their poetry to 70 people?” Pellegrino asked. It happens every year at the finale ceremony for parents in April.

Field trips are another important part of the program, Pellegrino said, as they introduce students to Tucson’s cultural wonders.

She also makes sure kids take at least one trek to the University of Arizona campus. “We want to teach kids it is a friendly, welcoming place,” she said.

Working as a program mentor led Jade Convery to get a job as a teacher at Rio Vista Elementary School.

“I enjoy the ability to see the students get creative, to open their minds to new ideas,” she said.

“There’s so much that’s wonderful about the program,” said Lisa Bunker, county youth services librarian.

“Marge is part of the reason why this program is so wonderful,” Bunker said. “She is just a master at making kids comfortable with being creative, sort of sensing a child’s strength before the child even knows it themselves.”

The annual Coming Up Taller contest is an initiative of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

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