By Lee-Ann Scott, OttawaReads Program Director for ONFE
Ottawa Police Officers Tara and Eli Edwards are volunteers with the OttawaReads early literacy program at Pinecrest Public School. Volunteering together was a choice they made to make a difference in the community and share their love of reading with young children.
OttawaReads is an employer supported volunteer program where members of the community are screened and trained to read aloud to children in Kindergarten to grade 3 weekly in Ottawa Carleton District School Board Schools. Since 2008, 92 police officers and civilian employees have volunteered to read aloud to children weekly in five low-socioeconomic schools across the city, including Pinecrest Public School.
Tara works in the Fatal Collision Section and Eli is a Patrol Sergeant, and together they are the parents of four active school age children. Eli joined OttawaReads in 2013 and introduced Tara as a volunteer in 2016. They share a volunteer position, taking turns reading aloud each week in Ms. Russell’s very busy Kindergarten classroom.
Principal Wanda Mills-Boone raves about the support Pinecrest School receives from the Ottawa Police Service volunteers. “We love having the Ottawa Police volunteers in the school weekly. Their presence provides a whole community feel to the school.”
This is precisely why Tara and Eli volunteer—building a community where police officers are part of the social fabric. Eli articulates it well, “The long term impact of the Ottawa Police Service volunteers will create life-long changes in how children view police. Some children have had negative experiences with police in their countries of origin or they have seen their parents interacting with law enforcement for a variety of social issues. We hope by volunteering, reading with the children, and talking about our lives as ‘regular people’ that this will leave a good impression and have a massive positive affect on how they see people in uniforms.”
Tara and Eli volunteer in their police uniforms, even on their day off, which is an important aspect of the Ottawa Police Service’s involvement in OttawaReads, allowing children to interact positively with police officers to build trust. They also use their volunteer time as teaching moments talking to the children about what to do when they get lost, and that they can trust police officers. “We don’t want them to be afraid. They can come to us for help.”
When asked what the benefits are of volunteering as a couple, Tara and Eli beam at each other with joy. “Because we are both in the Ottawa Police Service, coming home and talking about work can become negative. Volunteering to read with children gives us something very positive to talk about—we have a shared common experience.”
Tara and Eli eloquently summarize the benefits of volunteering, “When you place yourself in different social circumstances, it has a positive effect on you. You see life from a completely different perspective, especially when you sit in the tiny chairs! There is a positive mental health aspect to volunteering. It makes you feel good!”
In addition to Tara and Eli, Wanda Mills-Boone the Principal Pinecrest Public School currently welcomes over thirty community volunteers each week. “Having students interact with community members through OttawaReads provides authentic opportunities for children to query possible job opportunities and begin dreaming of them at a very early age. As we know the road to success starts with early intervention.”
OttawaReads aligns with the work of the Ottawa Police Service in the areas of neighbourhood outreach and crime prevention, and gives OPS employees an opportunity to build positive relationships with children and youth. Research confirms that the acquisition of early literacy skills is crucial to removing barriers to learning and reducing crime rates.
Through the Ottawa Volunteers in Education/OttawaReads Program, more than 1,500 community members are volunteering over 206,784 hours in 152 local schools to support over 58,850 students annually–a donated value of over 4 million dollars!