Donor helps bring ‘Prime Time’ to Oak Harbor students and families

Judging by the crowd and the smiles, Prime Time Family Reading lives up to its name.

A student listens to a story during the Prime Time Family Reading program at Oak Harbor Library.
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For six Tuesday nights this fall, about two dozen families with children at Oak Harbor Elementary School gathered in the meeting room at the Oak Harbor Library. Such a reading program might normally be scheduled after dinner, but this one starts at 5:30 p.m. with a meal for all participants.

A half-hour later, a colorful rug is rolled out and the children – all second- and third-graders – gather on the floor in front of two storytellers, retired librarian Mechelle Van Houdt and local business owner Claudia Sámano Losada.

The rest of the family can pull up chairs behind the students and the first of two books are read aloud by the storytellers. Younger siblings can go to a separate room with program volunteers to create their own stories with paper, crayons and colored pencils.

The books aren’t new to the families. Each week, they go home with a bag containing the following week’s books. What is new is that each story is followed by questions to the children about what they just heard. Did they like the story? What do they think about the characters in the story? How does it make them feel? How might they change the story?

“This program is about helping these young people become early readers, or earlier readers,” said George Saul, a Whidbey Island resident and major donor to the program. “Reading is a fundamental building block. The sooner the better, like compound interest in your bank account.”

Saul and his wife, Sheila, have donated more than $29,000 to fund three of the six-week sessions over the past year. The Sauls made their donation through the Whidbey Community Foundation in honor of George Saul’s mother, Betty Saul, who was an assistant librarian Ithaca (New York) High School.  “In her eyes, being able to read constituted the keys to the magic kingdom,” George Saul said.

Jane Lopez-Santillana, Oak Harbor Library librarian, said the Prime Time program is intended as an introduction to books and reading for the entire family. While the students are the focal point, family involvement is key. Each family received an invitation and made a commitment to participate. Adults in the family see and hear how the books are presented and the follow-up discussion.

George Saul said he heard about the program in a conversation with Mary Campbell Oak Harbor Library manager.

“She might have been fishing and I got hooked,” Saul said, sounding happy to be reeled in. “This program tries to make it as easy as possible to participate. Dinner? We provide dinner. Books? We provide the books.”

Saul said he hopes that others will see the long-term value and join in supporting the program. “Each six-week session is about $8,000. Get some friends together or a family,” he said. “It’s doable.”

Prime Time Family Reading is a collaboration between the Oak Harbor Library, the Oak Harbor School District, Humanities Washington and local donors. Sno-Isle Libraries provides staffing support and facilitates the program. The Oak Harbor School District identifies families to participate in the program.