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Reading has its reward

Inclement weather didn't scare readers away from Chocachatti Elementary School's recent Camp Read-A-Thon. It was the culminating event of the school's two-week book fair, which raised enough money - more than $11,000 - to pay for yearbooks for the entire student body and all staffers.

"It's a way to show kids that reading is fun," said June Randall, the guidance counselor and yearbook adviser who organized the event. "The book fair, and the events that go along with it, also enable everybody to get a free yearbook."

The evening began with dozens of kids bundled up on the cafeteria floor in pajamas and sleeping bags. The stage was decorated like a forest, with a fake paper fire blowing in the middle. All the students gathered around to watch and listen to Matthew Gardner read one of his favorite short stories, Winners Never Quit by Mia Hamm.

Gardner works on professional development with teachers at nine local schools. He is a project director for Lindamood-Bell, which hosts a program to develop the underlying sensory abilities that allow students to read and comprehend.

"I take any chance I can get to read to kids," he said. "One of the strategies we use is to model reading fluency. The more kids are exposed to that, the more they will learn from it. Reading to them is also just another way to show that reading is something we support. . . . Reading is the door to everything."

As teachers and guests read to the kids, faculty members and volunteers made s'mores and painted children's faces in the back. Randall planned to have the event on the physical education field out back, where she could light a big bonfire so kids could cook food and gather around, but heavy rains sent the read-a-thon to the cafeteria.

"I can't believe how many people are still showing up," Randall said. "People are running in here soaked."

Students dressed in friendly bear costumes greeted the wet kids and parents when they entered the cafeteria.

"My job is to hug the little kids and entertain them," said 9-year-old third-grader Allison Sannuto.

Allison is an employee of the Camera Bugs, which is Randall's Microsociety activity at Chocachatti. Microsociety is a Chocachatti program in which students work fictitious jobs for a couple of hours each week during school to simulate real-life experiences. Members of the Camera Bugs took turns wearing a few different bear costumes for the event.

Aside from dressing up and being friendly, Allison loves to read.

"I think it makes you more intelligent," she said. "If you want to know more about something, like a snake, you could read about it and come to school and tell everybody else about it. It's interesting."

Allison said she looks forward to the book fair each year because she can keep the books she gets, instead of only checking them out at the library.

"This year I bought A Cinderella Story," she said. "I have the movie at home, but I always wanted to read the book."

Allison's father, John Sannuto, took his daughter to the event to show his support for her, and for reading.

"I wanted to see Allison all dressed up as the bear," Sannuto said. "And I wanted to show her that I support anything that has to do with reading. She's already a big reader, but things like this get kids even more excited and motivated about reading."

When the school year winds down to its last few weeks, students, faculty and employees of Chocachatti will have a new book to read - and it will be real familiar to them.

"The yearbook is really a memory book," said Chocachatti principal Michael Tellone. "It documents all the special events of the year and the students and faculty who make them possible."

Randall said she thinks yearbooks have special meaning to students and faculty, so she thinks they should be free.

"It's great that we don't have to pay for yearbooks," said 10-year-old fourth-grader Madison Peeler. "We don't have to spend our own money so we can use the money for things we need."

One of the final readers for the evening was Bill Newell, the familiar local television talk show host of Speaking Out: Straight Talk about Hernando County.

"I am a former elementary school teacher, so I know how important reading is for kids," Newell said. "I used to read to my kids all the time. The greatest thing about elementary school teaching is the ability to read to kids."

Newell said that in today's fast-paced, high-technology world, children often don't get the kind of communication they need.

"The television talks to kids, the radio talks to kids and teachers talk to kids," he said, "but nothing is better than a story to reach out to them."

Mathew Wasserman can be reached at