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2 ending yearlong fight for literacy in Pinellas

The young AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers hope that someone else will pick up the torch when they leave.

The pay is low and the work is largely administrative, but two literacy advocates in Pinellas County say their year with an AmeriCorps VISTA reading outreach program has been worth the effort.

"A lot of people at home wonder why I'm doing this," said Jennifer Nagle, 24. "Others I've graduated with are making good money and buying cars or houses. I try to explain, but they don't get it."

Nagle is a coordinator for Rolling Readers USA, an AmeriCorps VISTA program, in northern Pinellas County. She works from her home in Clearwater while her co-worker, 22-year-old John Stein, works in St. Petersburg and heads the program for the south county. Both are nearing the end of their contracts and hope replacements apply for the positions soon.

The two work for a monthly salary of $700, but after they complete the year, they will receive a $4,725 VISTA grant toward continuing their education. The money also can be used to repay student loans. Part-time participants who complete 900 hours of service are given a $2,362 grant.

"You learn to budget," said Nagle, who lives with her grandmother and mother in Clearwater. Stein lives with two roommates in St. Petersburg.

Stein and Nagle are among nearly 6,000 AmeriCorps VISTA members who have worked around the nation since 1994. The Rolling Readers USA program began in San Diego when Robert Condon noticed the positive effects of reading aloud to his children and began volunteering to read to children in homeless shelters.

"We know literacy is closely linked with education, which is linked with economics," Stein said. "It's a great feeling to see these kids have books."

The program started in St. Petersburg three years ago through a branch of the Zonta Club, a worldwide service organization of female executives that sponsored the program, and is supervised by Caroline Spencer.

"When I began in March, they were working in only three schools," Stein said. "Now we reach 25 schools."

This past year, Stein and Nagle expanded the program into northern Pinellas County's schools and libraries.

"We try to target Title 1 schools, which have 50 percent or more students on lunch programs," Nagle said. "We think these are the kids who need us the most, but we'll go anywhere people need us. "

The job entails promoting the program, raising funds and giving orientations to volunteers. Stein and Nagle have enlisted about 50 volunteers, ranging from middle school students to retirees, who each spend about an hour a week reading to or tutoring students in elementary schools, libraries, pediatric clinics and family centers. Occasionally, they also read to families. For example, once a week Stein reads to four children whose mother is deaf.

"Our volunteers are from every background: veterinarians, attorneys, Realtors, weather reporters," Nagle said. "It's one of the great things about doing this program. We meet all kinds of people and learn to understand and get along with all of them."

Twice a year Stein and Nagle also raise money to purchase books for the children, usually through raffles and donations. This year Stein raised about $2,500 and distributed about 1,200 new books to children in southern Pinellas.

Nagle said a pile of donated books, both fiction and non-fiction, is building and she hopes whoever takes over her position will consider holding a book sale to earn money to purchase new books for the children.

Full-time volunteers may not hold a second job, Stein said, but they receive benefits, transportation, training and may find colleges that will match the VISTA grant. He said another benefit is the photograph the two have of themselves standing in front of Air Force One at Tampa International Airport in August when they met President Clinton.

"I'll always remember that day," Stein said.

A native of Missouri, Nagle holds a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Missouri. She hopes to return to school and earn a master's degree. Stein, a student at the University of Maine, is considering transferring to the University of South Florida to finish the one semester he needs to graduate before going to law school. First, though, he plans on spending the summer traveling.

"There are a lot of benefits," Nagle said. "There is no way I would have gotten this experience if I had not done this."

_ Staff writer Christine Graef can be reached at (727) 445-4229 or