OTTER Program Wins Top Award

OTTER, an intergenerational program designed to boost the reading skills of at-risk preschool children—supported by Winter Park Health Foundation (WPHF) since 2004—has captured the $60,000 Bob Allen Outstanding Community Service Award from Walt Disney World.

It was the largest of the 38 grants awarded through Disney’s Helping Kids Shine program, and it was presented to Foster Grandparents Program of Central Florida which operates the program.

The money will enable OTTER, which stands for Older Teachers Training Early Readers, to expand its program to four new sites by the next school year.

The OTTER program which is designed to provide older adults with meaningful volunteer opportunities as well as help improve reading readiness in preschoolers in Central Florida is available at 9 sites.

These include Aloma United Methodist Church, Welbourne Avenue Nursery, Orange Center Elementary, the Jewish Community Center, Aloma Elementary Head Start, Hannibal Head Start at the New England Community Center, Reeves Terrace Head Start, Englewood Head Start and East Orange Head Start.

Next year, new sites are expected to open in Seminole County.

WPHF has invested about $165,000 in grants for the development and implementation of OTTER since July, 2004.

Megan Duesterhaus, OTTER Coordinator, said about 225 at-risk preschool students are receiving reading support at the existing sites. About 22 older adult volunteers participate. With the expansion, Ms. Duesterhaus hopes the program will be able to serve close to 400 children.

OTTER was launched during the 2004-2005 school year, doubled its size this year and now is getting requests for the program at other preschool sites.

Volunteers meet with students weekly using a curriculum that includes reading aloud, oral language, letter and sound knowledge lessons and phonological awareness.

The act of reading aloud is important to improving the literacy of children.  According to Ms. Duesterhaus, recent literacy research has determined it is the single most important thing adults can do to help children learn to read on schedule.

All of the sites have children identified as “at risk.”