Virginia Beach Mentors, Including Police and Firefighters, Propel Students to Reading Success

August 4, 2016


ven at nine o’clock on a Monday morning, Melissa Zibutis sounded like she was on top of the world. As I interviewed her for this blog post, I could actually hear her grinning over the phone. She told me the story of a student in the Virginia Beach Reads program, a first grader who spoke English as a second language. The student’s parents worked long hours to support their family, leaving little extra time for school support: his dad was a migrant farm worker, his mother a housekeeper, and they held extra jobs to make ends meet.

Before Virginia Beach Reads sent volunteers into his classroom, this student was struggling to stay on track with reading. Through Virginia Beach Reads, a volunteer worked closely with the student to provide emotional and academic support, and the student was reading at grade-level by the end of the school year. According to Melissa, the mentorship component of the program is just as important as reading. “That Tuesday morning hug, or just to hear that they’re doing a great job, can make the difference in the lives of young people,” she told me.

Melissa knows the impact of this work first hand through her role in the City of Virginia Beach Office of Volunteer Resources. She works with Virginia Beach Reads, a program that aims to get children reading on-level by the third grade. Since the program launched in 2013, hundreds of elementary school students in the Virginia Beach, VA area have received support from volunteers who help mentor and educate them on a weekly basis. Virginia Beach Reads has resulted in remarkable student success, due in no small part to the relentlessly optimistic influence of Melissa. Earlier this month, we discussed some of the opportunities, challenges, and stories she’s encountered while managing Virginia Beach Reads.

Cities of Service: Tell me about how Virginia Beach Reads got started. How, and why, did the City of Virginia Beach decide to implement this program?

Melissa Zibutis: The way we run the program is unique. It’s actually a part of our Department of Economic Development in the GrowSmart Office. GrowSmart is essentially a program that aims to develop young humans from when they’re in utero to eight years old. From an economic development perspective, investing in kids during this crucial time in their lives will help them to participate in the workforce in the future. We had ages zero to five covered, but we knew that we could do more for children ages five to eight. We were considering a few different volunteer initiatives and decided that the Cities of Service Third Grade Reads Blueprint was a great fit for us, since third grade reading levels are an important indicator of success.

Virginia Beach considers the issue of childhood development as a factor in economic development. Third grade is a critical transitional period for students: until the end of third grade, students are learning to read; however, once they enter fourth grade, they are reading to learn. A student struggling with basic reading skills cannot “read to learn” to keep up with classes. This problem can become cyclical as the student ages up. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma when compared to proficient readers.

Third Grade reads is not just about third grade: it’s about providing the support and the tools children need to succeed for the rest of their life. That’s one of the reasons Melissa is invested in expanding Virginia Beach Reads.

Cities of Service: What are some of your goals for the program moving forward? Do you have any advice for people who want to implement similar programs in their cities?

Melissa Zibutis: This program is so good, it can’t not survive! It’s my biggest focus and my biggest concern right now. There’s been a lot of leadership change in Virginia Beach in the last year. I see it as an opportunity to show people what we’re about. We can say, hey, you can’t ignore these numbers! The students’ reading scores are just unbelievable. Changing leadership is an opportunity to get more people involved in the program, and hopefully it will be a catalyst fordeveloping a city-wide service plan. That’s definitely one of my long-term goals.

We do have an amazing array of volunteers at the moment, people from all walks of life, all ages, all employment situations, participating in our program. To know that so many people share our passion is a real source of excitement. We’re currently hoping we can find more men to volunteer, as well as Spanish speakers. Our student gender ratio is about 50-50, but male mentor-tutors only make up 12 percent of our volunteer base. Additionally, each year our Spanish speaking population is growing, and having tutors with experience in English as a Second Language (ESL) programs or a foundation in a foreign language would be beneficial.

My biggest piece of advice for people trying to start a new volunteer program is, don’t get discouraged. Some people won’t be passionate about the same things as you, and that’s okay, just keep moving forward. It’s worth it.

Cities of Service: What do you love about the program?

Melissa Zibutis: Stories about the kids keep me going. I mainly work in the office overseeing the program from afar, but my colleagues, and even my significant other, are in the classroom with these amazing kids and share the most inspiring stories with me. My significant other is a firefighter, and he speaks conversational Spanish. When he is off-shift, he goes in and mentors two English language learners. They look at him and think, “Oh, you speak Spanish too! Maybe I could be a firefighter one day.” Now they want to be firefighters, they want to come visit him at the fire station, they just love him. A lot of the value of Virginia Beach Reads is the relationship between students and volunteers, and having a role model teaching kids. These students – they come into the classroom in the beginning of the year – some of them not speaking English or unable to recognize the alphabet, and by the end of the year they’re reading. It’s incredible to watch them grow.

To learn more about Virginia Beach Reads and the Virginia Beach Department of Economic Development, or to start a similar program in your city, check out the resources below.


Cities of Service Third Grade Reads Blueprint
Early Warning Confirmed: A Research Update on Third-Grade Readingfrom the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Virginia Beach Department of Economic Development
Virginia Beach Reads & GrowSmart