Cristina remembers the struggle she went through in childhood to learn how to read. Every morning, she dreaded going to class. The stress formed like a knot in her stomach whenever she thought about the teacher calling on her to read out loud. She was embarrassed it took her longer than her peers. Her classmates’ sighs of impatience and whispers of criticism crushed her confidence.
Things changed in 1978 when George, a volunteer at Crockett Elementary, began reading with her in first grade. Each week, the kind, elderly gentleman pulled out a newspaper from under his arm and asked Cristina to read it back to him. His patience and encouragement began to boost her confidence and reading skills. She often waited by the window and got excited when she recognized George, who walked with a slight limp, slowly making his way toward the school.
One day, Cristina’s parents got a chance to meet the man that helped their daughter become more literate. She noticed how star struck her parents were when they met George, but wasn’t sure why. Later, she learned her reading buddy was none other than Col. Joseph George Cisneros, the father of Henry Cisneros – future San Antonio Mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary. The rising political figure was serving on the city council at the time and was well on his way to making an impact as a prominent community leader. Meanwhile, George quietly continued serving the community in a different way, helping students like Cristina as an assistant reading teacher with the Retired Senior Volunteer Program.
Decades later, George’s impact is still evident in Cristina’s life. Today, Cristina Duarte has made a career out of investing in local students’ lives as CPS Energy’s Manager of Education & Mentoring programs. She administers the Company’s various programs that provide guidance and inspiration to students.
San Antonio Youth Literacy’s (SAYL) Reading Buddy program is naturally close to her heart. Each year, she recruits fellow employees to commit 30 minutes a week to read with elementary kids. Last year, CPS Energy was SAYL’s largest corporate partner with 36 team members volunteering as Reading Buddies for 49 students. Team members logged 330 volunteer hours to improve the reading literacy of second graders at various local schools.
Volunteers like Bob Nelson, an Engineering Associate in Technology & Product Innovation, have enjoyed helping students boost their reading skills the last four years. During the 2017-18 school year, he read with third graders Ishmael and Joseph at Barkley-Ruiz Elementary. The students started at a kindergarten reading level and had difficulty reading most words. Bob happily encouraged them each week and showed them how to have fun reading. During one of his visits, Bob and Ishmael read a book about animals in Africa and made a game out of trying to guess what animal would be on the next page.
By the end of the school year, Ishmael and Joseph had nearly moved up to a third grade reading level. Bob loves the satisfaction of helping struggling students learn to read.
“My most favorite thing is when you run into them at their school two years later and they give you a big hug,” he said. “It really shows what kind of impact you made in their lives.”
Cristina is proud to see Bob and other volunteers investing in students’ lives like her own reading buddy from childhood. At times, she’ll hear some of the reading buddies question how much of an impact they’re making. So, every year, when her volunteers meet for an end of year celebration, she shares her story about George and tells them, “If you don’t think you’re making a difference, just remember, I’m living proof that you are.”