Students of Service hosts virtual readings of children’s books

Tiny Tritons participants

Volunteers read children’s books during live broadcasts on the Students of Service Facebook page. The project, designed for preschool to fifth grade children, connects UMSL students with families in the St. Louis community as an alternative to in-person Tiny Tritons events. (Photo by Mona Sabau)

From fantastical tales woven around a campfire to heroic escapades unfolding across black and white pages, humans have been connected by a love of stories through the centuries.

Students of Service at the University of Missouri–St. Louis is harnessing technology to share stories with children. Viewers can tune in to the organization’s Facebook page at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. most weekdays to hear beloved classics and lesser known works.

It’s part of the organization’s mission to connect UMSL students with the community through service projects, a mission that remains vital during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People need to feel connected,” said Ashlee Roberts, associate director of Student Involvement. “I think that is really huge. Even when you’re in a house with other people, you’re used to still connecting with people outside of your family. A lot of people are losing that.”

As stay-at-home orders were enacted, Students of Service needed to adapt its service project model.

“Service is challenging to do during quarantine and social isolation,” Roberts said. “You don’t want to have people out and about. It actually took a little bit of time – a couple of weeks – to come up with some viable options as we transitioned to a virtual world. What can we do that is not in person but can be helpful? We were thinking through some of the challenges that people may be having, and kids being everywhere is one of them.”

The story time idea stemmed from a joke made during a brainstorming session between Roberts and Jessica Long-Pease, director of the Millennium Student Center and Student Involvement. Long-Pease mentioned that babysitting would be helpful, and the two molded that idea into a tangible way to give parents a break.

Roberts shared the idea with members of the Community Engagement Liaisons group. Assistant Teaching Professor Katherine O’Daniels and Assistant Professor Jennifer Bumble of the College of Education saw the project as an opportunity for their students to hone teaching skills during remote learning.

The readings are designed to captivate children’s attention for a few minutes during the midmorning and at bedtime, freeing caregivers to work, do chores or relax. The intended audience, preschool to fifth grade students, mirrors the target age range of the award-winning Tiny Tritons program.

Roberts had to navigate the challenge of finding suitable books that were either in the public domain or she could obtain permission to use. Titles include “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” “The Happy Prince,” “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “Anne of Green Gables” and “The Secret Garden.”

Graduate Student Ida Casey kicked things off on April 27 with “Flossie and the Fox,” a book by St. Louis author Patricia McKissack. Students and faculty volunteers will offer readings through at least the end of the semester.

Virtual story times fit well with other Students of Services initiatives, such as MLK Day of Service, Alternative Spring Break and a monthly Service Saturday. These events allow students to support their community and help others. The organization also offers an annual Trunk-or-Treat to provide a safe way for local families to celebrate Halloween. The event welcomes about 400 children each year.

“I love being at a public university and serving the community,” Roberts said. “Whether it’s our Tiny Tritons families or anyone else that UMSL can make a connection to, I think that it’s really important to help in the ways that we can. We can’t go out and do service to our nonprofits and things that we would normally do, but this gives us an opportunity to still make those community connections.”

Students of Service kicked off its first year in 2011. Roberts, who had been a member of a service board as an undergraduate student, organized the group to provide hands-on development for students as they work alongside staff members to complete service projects that support the St. Louis region.

“It’s your community no matter how long you’re here,” she said. “You don’t have to wait until you have a certain amount of money or a certain lifestyle or a certain esteem to be able to help and serve others.”

Catch Students of Service’s story time on Facebook.

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