Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Just one law at youth centre: Read a book

Lawyer volunteers make it fun for kids

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Lawyer Bev Padeanu and McKenzie Opaleke, 11, enjoy a book together.




LEFT: Lawyer Bev Padeanu and McKenzie Opaleke, 11, enjoy a book together.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Lawyer Bev Padeanu and McKenzie Opaleke, 11, enjoy a book together. LEFT: Lawyer Bev Padeanu and McKenzie Opaleke, 11, enjoy a book together. Photo Store

"TAKE your time, guys. Don’t rush."

Ken Opaleke put this message on repeat Saturday morning. Children wander out of the main room at the Lawyers for Literacy Read-a-thon fundraising event at the West Broadway Youth Outreach centre, away from the books and their reading task, and Opaleke gets on them right away.

"Please, take your time. No hurry. Finish your juice box."

Opaleke, the man in charge of the not-for-profit WBYO, has the opposite intention his words suggest, of course. He wants the children under his watchful eye, currently numbering more than 250 regulars, to read as many books as possible.

The Lawyers for Literacy event exists as an education challenge: At-risk children, typically from low-income or immigrant families, read aloud to members of the Law Society of Manitoba. Once they finish a book or chapter, they get a sticker. All the stickers are counted up at the end of the day and if the total exceeds 1,600 books, the kids get a trip to the Sky Zone indoor trampoline park.

That's the carrot. And if the kids fall short of 1,600, Opaleke gets a free weekend.

They never fall short, though.

"I tell them I want them to reach 1,598," he laughs. "That's why I'm telling them to take their time. They'll beat it. They always beat it. Last year, the goal was 1,500 books and they hit 1,527. We went roller-skating. They really let me have it."

Opaleke, the heart and soul of the WBYO for nearly 25 years, is all about the challenge. The WBYO isn't just a drop-in centre where kids can go to kill time. It's a place where obtaining life skills is paramount, even if the children don't realize they're learning as they try to meet the given expectations.

"It's camouflaged as a fun recreational program," he said. "It is that, no doubt, but it's only effective because the children want to be challenged. That's why I'm always honest with them. I'll tell them the truth.

"You can't fool the kids because they will take that lesson and fool themselves. And that's when they start to find trouble."

The Lawyers for Literacy program started in 2011 and has raised more than $35,000 for the WBYO. The first year, about 40 lawyers volunteered to read with children. More than 90 lawyers signed up to give up some of their Saturday afternoon this time around, with many making their third and fourth appearance.

Jenny Jones, a law society spokeswoman, said the legal community raised about another $15,000 this year.

Allan Fineblit, CEO of the Law Society of Manitoba, has been involved all four years and said the fundraiser is more than just an hour of volunteer time and a small donation to the WBYO. Fineblit feels the reading experience breaks down barriers -- perceived or otherwise -- between the children and adults.

The interaction has positives for both sides, he said, and has led to discussions about wanting to do more next year and beyond.

"There is such an energy (here) that is hard to describe," Finebilt said. "It's funny. Every year, we have people who sign up for an hour, say from 11 to 12 o'clock. Without fail, I'll see that it's 3 o'clock and they're still here. That's the impact that I'm talking about.

"The adults get just as much out of it as the children."

"These are great kids here -- they sometimes just need a little guidance to find their

 

full potential," said Peter Correia, a regular volunteer and the principal of Mulvey School, which houses the WBYO after school drop-in centre.

"These are not lazy kids," he said. "When you see that spark in a child, it's rather infectious. I think that's what's going on here with this event -- the law society is seeing just what a difference a little time can make."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2014 A7

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