When April Taylor and Erma show up to Kingsford Elementary each Tuesday, it’s hard to say who is the bigger star.
Erma is a beautiful German shorthaired pointer with a face that could melt your heart. When she lays next to kids, their anxiety about reading seems to fade away, and they can just lose themselves in a good book and not struggle with the words so much.
That’s tough to beat.
Taylor, meanwhile, is Kingsford’s Volunteer of the Year (and Erma’s owner). She is full of ideas and has a relentless drive to help students read. The retired Lakelander has a degree in economics and used to work in the nonprofit world, but will readily tell you that she missed her calling as a kindergarten teacher.
“I realized that too late in life,” Taylor says. “I love kids; I love reading to kids.”
Erma might be the fuzzy face of the operation, but Taylor has the brains. Earlier this week she launched Erma’s Books on the Bus, a lending program that allows Kingsford students to choose from hundreds of books and squeeze in some extra reading time while waiting for the bus, and riding to and from school.
Taylor would like to expand Books on the Bus to Lewis Elementary (where she volunteers on Fridays), and it sounds like she wouldn’t mind if other schools follow suit.
“It’s a long bus ride for some of these kids,” she said. “My goal in life is for every kid to have a book in their hand whenever they want one.”
Taylor and her husband, Andy, also built two Little Free Libraries (book-sharing boxes) at Kingsford and Lewis for their surrounding communities to enjoy.
Yet another new venture is Bedtime Stories with Erma, in which Taylor climbs into bed with Erma every weeknight at 7 p.m. and reads stories on Facebook Live to anyone interested in watching.
But the heart of Taylor’s volunteer work are the weekly school visits with Erma. She started the initiative years ago at her son’s school and a library in Miami, and brought it with her after moving to Polk County.
Erma, now seven years old, is a certified therapy dog who is also registered with the Reading Education Assistance Dogs (R.E.A.D.) program. Taylor works with staff at Kingsford and Lewis Elementary to identify students with significant challenges in reading, and every week they each get to spend 15 minutes or so immersed in a book with Erma at their side.
“Mainly I just let them read,” Taylor said. “They kind of forget that I’m there, and they’re just reading with Erma. She lays her head on their back, they absent-mindedly stroke her coat; it brings their blood pressure down, they relax.
“For most of the kids, reading aloud is the last thing they want to do. They’re shy, they’ve been embarrassed before. In this program, they’re singled out, but in a special way. They look forward to coming, and I’ve seen their confidence grow because they feel special.”
Melissa Whitfield says she is thankful for the time her son, Adin, spends with Erma at Kingsford Elementary.
“He absolutely loves it … he’s a very busy dude and he needs something to calm him sometimes,” Whitfield said. “He has ADHD, and she helps him focus when he’s reading. He actually wants to read more now.”
Kingsford Principal Sue Bizerra is another member of the Erma fan club. She says Erma gives students new ways to get excited about reading, without pressure or expectations; they also see that there are people — and dogs — outside of school who are invested in their success.
For the record, Bizerra thinks April Taylor is pretty neat, too.
“This lady is incredible. I can’t say enough about her,” Bizerra said. “She’s just the most amazing person.”