Berkeley County volunteer lights up kindergarten, second-grade classrooms

Betty Cuthbert looked up and realized she had been reading to Berkeley County school children for 25 years, with no plans to slow down.

By Bob Fleenor

Betty Cuthbert was surprised to realize she’s been a volunteer reader at Berkeley Heights Elementary School in Martinsburg for the past quarter century.

“I didn’t know it had been 25 years. If you enjoy it, you don’t count (the years),” she said. “I feel sorry for people who spend their time doing nothing.”

Cuthbert is one of approximately 175 Read Aloud West Virginia volunteers who visit Berkeley County classrooms each week.

Cuthbert, a native of Queens, N.Y., is one of Read Aloud’s longest-tenured readers. She and Bob, her husband of 55 years, moved to Berkeley County about 30 years ago when Bob took a job at Dulles International Airport.

“I found it frustrating that when I moved here, people didn’t seem to be interested in reading,” she observed. “If you can’t read, you can’t do anything.”

She soon began volunteering at Berkeley Heights, including some one-on-one reading with a first-grader. In 1993, a fourth-grade teacher asked Cuthbert to begin reading to that class. She said yes, and attended a local Read Aloud West Virginia training session.

‘As long as I can read, and I’m able to get there, I’m not going to stop.’

— Betty Cuthbert

Twenty-five years later, Cuthbert is still at it, spending about 30 minutes each Tuesday with students in Teresa Feldman’s second-grade classroom and another half-hour with Haley Jones’ kindergarteners.

“I’d like to spend hours with them if I could,” she said. “If I can’t be there for some reason, there’s a little void there.”

“She’s wonderful,” said Bev Hoffmaster, instructional specialist for Berkeley County Schools, who has known Cuthbert since Hoffmaster was a teacher at Berkeley Heights. “She’s dependable, she’s sincere, and she’s really, really dedicated.”

Cuthbert doesn’t drive, so her husband brings her to school each week. While Betty reads, Bob waits patiently in the car, usually with Jackie, their 2-year-old black Lab/pit pull mix adopted from the local Humane Society.

Cuthbert typically stands in front of the class to read as the children, seated on a mat, gather close so they can see the pictures.

“They prefer books with pictures,” she said. “Second-graders love rhyming books” as well.

The material “can’t always be ‘once upon a time’ books,” she cautioned. “They’ve got to learn something.”

Cuthbert knows from experience what Read Aloud volunteers are encouraged to do — keep students interested. While reading a book, she’ll pause to ask the children, “would you do that?” or say “I wouldn’t do that!”

“I like the thought of reading aloud,” she said. “I also know you have to have a lot of emotion to read.

“If you’re reading a book about a forest, or the Amazon, you have to know how to make it seem real. If you can do that, you’ve got it made.”

In addition to reading to the group, Cuthbert will sometimes pair up with a student chosen by the teacher. She and the student will read to each other, alternating pages.

Children’s lives have changed during the last 25 years, she said.

“I saw the difference when I go into the classroom when they’re having breakfast. I don’t see the same enthusiasm for school. Kids are constantly moving (to and from the school district). You’ll see them for a few weeks, then not see them again.

“If you can have a great attitude when you see them, it helps a lot. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”

Cuthbert, a mother of three, grandmother of three and great-grandmother of two, isn’t slowing down after 25 years of volunteering.

“As long as I can read, and I’m able to get there, I’m not going to stop. It’s important,” she said.

“I just hope all the years I’ve been reading have helped someone along the way. When you leave the classroom and the kids are happy, it makes you feel good.”

Bob Fleenor is president of the Berkeley County chapter of Read Aloud West Virginia.