Society has created many competing distractions when it comes to literacy and to education on the whole. As a result, we do not reinforce reading among children or adults for the most part.
Books aren't necessarily of value to some youngsters, and many parents don't have the time to sit and read to their children. Those factors, explains Taos Milagro Rotary Club President Bruce Mulligan, is why 60-70 percent of New Mexico's kids aren't reading at grade level and why literacy and education are at the forefront of their volunteer efforts.
Literacy and education are a big part of Rotary International and a big part of what the local club does because as Mulligan simply stated, "It's important." Nationally, overall the Rotary focuses on health care, world peace, literacy education, childcare ... both internationally and locally. In Taos' club, they tend to focus on local literacy efforts because as Mulligan stated, "That's really where we see the biggest deficit in New Mexico. When statewide you've only got 30 percent or so of kids reading at their grade level by third grade, that's sad. It's not any better here in Taos."
With a common goal "to make life better for those around us," the 50 TMR members and other volunteers give their time to read to kids in kindergarten through third grade who are reading below their grade levels. They also raise funds for and hand out four-year, unrestricted college scholarships to area seniors; create and supply 15 "free library" boxes; distribute dictionaries to third-graders throughout the county; and contribute to international projects in underserved countries.
They'd rather support the other local nonprofit organizations than compete with them, Mulligan said. For instance, TMR supplies prosthetics to NonForgotten Outreach, supports Heart of Taos, Big Brothers Big Sisters and TriCounty Community Services. It operates through the 501(c)(3) Taos Community Foundation. They also support local community grants to nonprofits, including seven $1,000 grants handed out last year to groups such as Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, Vista Grande High School Entrepreneurship Program and the SOMOS Young Writers Group to name a few. This year they plan on awarding two $1,000 grants.
TMR is joining Best of Taos in celebrating its 20th anniversary. Throughout those years, the community has taken notice of the Rotarian's many positive community and international programs; in the "Best Civic Organization" category, TMR has placed either first or second in the Best of Taos poll since 1999, having taken the top spot the past four years.
The Taos Milagro Rotary Club was formed in 1998 as an arm of Rotary International, which was founded in 1905 and is the oldest service organization of its kind. The club is part of Rotary District 5520 of New Mexico and Southwestern Texas. Its motto is "Service above Self."
The reading program
The successful program in Oregon called "SMART" (Start Making a Reader Today) is the model for the TMR's reading program. Thirty-two volunteers go to specific schools every week and read to each of the 48 students individually for half an hour. And sometimes, the child will read to the volunteer in return.
"It's been documented in other states that if you read to a child, you've created a reader for life and improved reading levels," Mulligan stressed.
Teachers here, he said, were open to the program but weren't convinced it would make a difference. "And guess what, those kids improved their reading scores," he said.
Taos Day School has noticed the benefits. The third-grade teacher, for example, told Mulligan she wants to send more kids into the program because they have really improved their reading comprehension just by having an adult sit with them and read.
"It's the kind of attention a teacher can't always give them," he added.
Every three weeks, the kids get to take home a book to keep. And they get good literature to choose from, such as award-winning books, books that are culturally relevant and subject matter that intrigues them.
"Some of the kids love “Star Wars,” for example," he noticed. "The idea is that reading is fun and that it's not a task ... it's not homework. And it's making a difference."
The reading program has expanded from the Pueblo and Taos into Ranchos, with the hope of spreading throughout Taos County. The club is always looking for volunteers to read to kids and to procure more resources from which to buy books.
They presently get donated books from a federal program based in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, but "who knows what the Trump administration is going to do in terms of those programs? It's a challenge to get resources and we're scraping together what we can," Mulligan said.
In the end, however, "It's rewarding."
"There's nothing more fun than reading to a first-grader," Mulligan described. "They come running into the library, and we have books spread out and they pick out their book, and we sit down for half an hour and read. They are cute as buttons."
TMR raises scholarship funds mainly through its annual golf tournament, which includes a chile cook-off featuring local restaurants and a "battle of the breweries." The 12th annual Chile Challenge will be held Sept. 22 at Taos Country Club.
The group's initial involvement with literacy began with offering scholarships. To date, they've award more than $140,000 to local and regional seniors who might not have otherwise been able to get a higher education.
"Every year we try to make it a little bit bigger," he said of the Chile Challenge. In 2017, the event raised about $40,000.
Most recently, the scholarships have expanded from traditional college funds to include vocational scholarships. Funds raised from the event also go directly to the literacy programs in general, which include the free libraries.
This May, TMR awarded seven scholarships. Some recipients stay in touch with the group to let them know how they're doing and how appreciative they still are.
"One student who sent us a letter was in medical school and because of the work we've done, inspired him to do immunology in Uganda," Mulligan shared.
Internationally, TMR was recently approved for a program to fund sanitation and hygiene efforts for seven schools in Guatemala in the form of flush toilets and wash stations. As the lead club, Milagro Rotary and other Rotary clubs in the district and through Rotary International (who made the project an approved grant), look to raise $60,324. It's a major focus for the group this year.
Rotary also oversees the Interact Club at Taos High School, presently comprised of 16 students. They are collecting toiletries and sundries to personally deliver across the border near Las Cruces to the clinics and midwife services there for the second year in a row.
On the horizon
TMR membership has been growing. From its inception, the numbers have fluctuated, but have gone up by 30 since 2012. Due to growth, they are in search of a larger meeting space that offers breakfast service. For the time being, the club meets every Wednesday, 7:20 a.m., at El Camino Lodge on Paseo del Pueblo Sur.
Looking ahead, TMR is exploring the idea of erecting tiny houses for the area's homeless — something Mulligan feels the group could do in the future if they had the capacity. Another thing on the wish list is a vocational building at Taos High School.
With more members, he knows they could do even more. And growing support of the Chile Challenge would allow them to do that.
Humility isn't something the members have to think about. It comes naturally.
While Mulligan said they are grateful for the Best of Taos award, and it's "nice to be recognized by the community, "that's "certainly not why we do what we do."
"We're helping kids reach their potential and I am glad that we're doing that," Mulligan continued. "For a little, dinky 50-member club in Taos, we're doing quite well. It is our hope to raise the dialogue in the community about what can be done with more involvement, and I hope this recognition aids in that."
Taos Milagro Rotary Club
Weekly meetings are held every Wednesday, 7:20 a.m. at the El Camino Lodge, 615 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, Taos.