Students share their ideas with 70-year-old new reader

When she sat down to read the latest issue of People magazine last spring, Lisa Lightbody, the volunteer coordinator at Manchester Elementary School, “was moved to tears.”

Jessica McMillen writes her letter to Alfred Williams explaining a book she read. Students in Chuck Vaughn’s and Suzy Gezell’s second grade class wrote letters Monday to a 70-year-old Missouri man who only recently learned to read.

Jessica McMillen writes her letter to Alfred Williams explaining a book she read. Students in Chuck Vaughn’s and Suzy Gezell’s second grade class wrote letters Monday to a 70-year-old Missouri man who only recently learned to read.

When she sat down to read the latest issue of People magazine last spring, Lisa Lightbody, the volunteer coordinator at Manchester Elementary School, “was moved to tears.”

The story of 70-year-old Alfred Williams, a sharecropper’s son who began attending Edison Elementary School in St. Joseph, Mo., to learn how to read, inspired her to write the magazine to share her sentiments.

But Lightbody wanted to make an impact on her own community, and began thinking of ways to make it happen.

She saw an opportunity during last month’s book fair, and wrote staff members encouraging them to participate.

The idea was for every class in the school to select a book for Williams to read.

Students also were asked to write “a letter of encouragement to Alfred,” which was included in the box of books shipped to him.

“I wanted our kids to look outside their small world in Port Orchard,” Lightbody said. “It seemed like a neat way to reach out to someone.”

According to People, Williams joined Edison Elementary in September 2005 to fulfill a six-decade old promise he made to his mother to learn to read. An Arkansas native, Williams said he worked with his father in the fields all day, picking cotton, corn, potatoes and cabbage. There was no time left for school.

The story went on to describe how he later was a metal worker and roofer before he eventually ended up homeless in 1998.

His brother, Albert, helped him find a basement flat, where he still lives while collecting $825 in monthly Social Security and disability pay.

But Williams told People he still wanted to fulfill his promise and noticed how veteran teacher Alesia Hamilton worked with students in a calm manner. He approached her, and after a summer of working together, Hamilton gained approval to have Williams join her class in 2006 after he successfully passed a background check.

“He’s the most courageous person I’ve ever heard about,” Lightbody said. “He had the gumption to ask the teacher to learn to read and enroll in school.”

Lightbody said students at Manchester wondered how Williams knew which restroom to use, or what a stop sign means.

Williams told People that others often scammed his father for money he “owed” them because he couldn’t read.

“I hope they realize how lucky they are, and that not everyone has the same opportunities they’ve been given,” Lightbody said.

She also hopes the interaction between the students and Williams “encourages him in his quest to be a lifelong reader.”

Lightbody said she suggested “The Precious Present,” which is about “being grateful for what you have in life.”

Students have recommended books such as “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “Hooray for Reading Day” and “Bats at the Library.”

“My hope is our kids will get more out of this and they can give hope and encouragement to others,” Lightbody said.

Nicolas Pettit, a second-grader in a class taught by Suzy Gesell and Chuck Vaughn, recommended “Bionicle Legends” because it only took him an hour to read. He also likes the action in the story.

Gesell said she wrote Williams to say the “Three Little Pigs” was her favorite when she learned to read, and that his story provided a message to others.

“It brought to life the importance education holds,” she said. “Take advantage of every free opportunity it holds.”

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