Profile: Volunteer Suzette Shelmire helps young readers blast off with Reading Rockets

By Morgan Stringer

Community programs like Reading Rockets benefit children’s education, according to Suzette Shelmire, a volunteer for the program. She said volunteering and getting involved in the community also improves people’s quality of life.

Reading Rockets is a program sponsored by the Lafayette County Literacy Council that focuses on helping children read at their grade level. Approximately 20-25 percent of Lafayette County adults cannot read well enough to complete a job application, according to the Lafayette Literacy Council website. Shelmire said programs like Reading Rockets increase the literacy rate.

“This state is wonderful, but it needs help,” she said. “I just feel that Mississippi started from behind, but today, I feel so confident with all these programs that Mississippi will catch up and not be last in line for education.”

Reading Rockets provides after-school activities for at-risk students attending Bramlett Elementary School in Oxford on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Activities take place in different classrooms according to activity.

Children participate in story time, crafts, and students occasionally create their own stories, according to Shelmire.

“Last week, we made a Thanksgiving story, and the children, who could, wrote down the story. Those who could not write the story had a volunteer help them.”

Reading Rockets is now in its third year, according to Meredith Wulff, director of Reading Rockets. The program worked with first graders at Bramlett Elementary School in Oxford to help them read at their grade level by the end of the year. This year, volunteers work with kindergarteners.

Last year, the program invited parents to attend meetings after class, so they could learn more about the books their children were reading. Then, they could read the books with their children, said Shelmire.

“We will probably expand the program, once we get more volunteers,” she said. “It takes all kinds of help to keep these things going.”

Community programs like Reading Rockets benefit children as they continue their education, according to Shelmire.

“It was amazing to see how much these children progressed, and watch them improve through the semester,” she said.

“I don’t think ‘Oh, well, I think I want to do something else today.’ This is what I do on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I treat it like my job. I love this program, because I meet so many delightful girls from Ole Miss. Some are members of sororities and clubs, and they do it for volunteer hours. It is so wonderful, and the children love them because, they are young and so full of energy. So there is a lot of good that will be coming from this program.”

The program also provides a place where children can learn, while they are engaged socially, said Shelmire.

“Whatever we can do to make them feel loved here at school is worthwhile,” she said. “That’s what I want to do.”

In January, the Literacy Council will give a course, which will instruct people in how to teach others to read.

“That will help us all, whether it is first graders of 50-year-olds, so that will be a new challenge, and I’m looking forward to that,” she said.

Requiring children to attend preschool would also benefit Mississippian children, Shelmire said.

“Preschool would help children, because 4-year-olds are perfectly capable of sponging up a lot of knowledge,” she said. “If you can get them then by the time they go to kindergarten, they’re on their way, so I hope that the Mississippi Legislature figures out how they are going to fund pre-K.

“It is bound to improve education, because some of these darling children, I ask them, ‘What did you do last year?’ They say ‘I don’t know. This is our first year of school.’ Adding pre-K will provide a structure, and it will probably be a great help to these young people.”

Shelmire volunteered for several projects in the past, and as a camp counselor several times. That is where she decided she wanted to work with children.

In 1987, she volunteered with Junior Zookeepers, a program at the Dallas Zoo. She taught children how to care for animals and talk with patrons about exhibits. She said program still exists.

Shelmire also cared for baby animals, whose mothers were injured or killed by cars.

“I would sometimes have four or five baby opposums at home that I would raise until they were old enough to turn back into the wild,” she said.

Shelmire met her husband, Overton Shelmire, while attending the University of Texas. Afterwards, the couple lived in Dallas, where Overton Shelmire was an architect until he had a stroke.

The couple decided to retire in Oxford to get away from the busy city life of Dallas, while also living closer to their daughter and grandchildren, who live in Oxford.

The opportunities to get involved with the community also attracted Shelmire.

“It was a much better situation, and we love all the things you can do here,” she said. “There’s things you can get involved with at the art center, the Ford Center, and the YMCA, where I have met most of my friends. ”

While volunteering with the Oxford Arts Council, Shelmire heard about the need for Reading Rockets volunteers. She is currently volunteering for her second year.

“I was looking for something to keep me busy and vital in this time of retirement,” she said.

“Suzette Shelmire is one of our best Reading Rockets volunteers,” said Wulff.

Shelmire volunteers to help children learn to love reading because she loves it.

“Even when we lived in Dallas, we would come to Oxford for the Oxford Conference For the Book,” she said. “Now, I can go to Square Books anytime I want to. I want to buy every book in the store. Maybe some people feel that way about jewelry, but when I go in there, I want to buy every book in the house.”

Reading Rockets will no longer meet this semester, but the program will resume its activities in January.

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