A great gig: a volunteer profile of Joe Biola

By Nikki Moses

How was Read Aloud today, Mr. Biola?

“Swell.” The energy in his voice is unmistakable. He has just returned from reading to three classrooms of devoted kids at North School in Elkins. “Swell.”

Biola, a retired insurance executive, wanted to read aloud to children but did not have an avenue. Then he found out about Read Aloud West Virginia. That was four years ago. Today the veteran volunteer reads to six classrooms each week, half on Tuesdays and half on Fridays. Students range from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade.

“Today I had ‘guest pickers,’’’ he said. Hmmm? “My grandson picked Bony Legs by Joanna Cole. It’s a little scary so the kids liked it. My wife picked Beautiful Joe by Margaret Marshall Saunders.” This “pick” is a story written in 1893 about a dog that has had a tough start in life. “It is still resonant today,” Biola explained.

He frequents Elkins’ public library and the Davis and Elkins College library in search of titles, and he keeps a log of books that work well.

Roald Dahl is a favorite, including his The Enormous Crocodile. “It’s about a crocodile that likes to eat children,” he said, laughing. He also reads The Fantastic Mr. Fox and The BFG to his fourth graders. How to Be Cool in the Third Grade by Betsy Duffey is another favorite.

He has read from the Harry Potter series, too. These lengthy novels are too long for Biola to read in their entirety. He reads a few chapters and then lets the kids’ appetite for reading take over. “If they want (to finish reading) it, they know where to find it,” he said.

An original title is Big Butch the Blue Nosed Reindeer. This is a story Biola created for his children. His daughter, Dr. Holly Biola, turned it into picture book. Another amazing story is Willa the Caterpilla, a story written by her father-in-law, the late Dr. Don Roberts. Roberts wrote Willa during his time as a doctor serving in World War II and sent it back to his daughters.

Second grade teacher Brittany Scarberry sings Biola’s praises. “He comes faithfully every week, right on time…He reads with wonderful expression, and even does voice impressions for different characters.

“Mr. Biola brings so much joy and knowledge to the students through reading. A consistent example of an adult reading for enjoyment offers so many benefits to the students,” she said.

Asked about his reading style, Biola said, laughing, “I have a falsetto and a bass. And I can do Donald Duck. There are not many times to use that one, but I am ready.”

He advises readers to vet their books carefully, and “Keep your appointment,” he counsels.

In the end Biola believes he is the one who benefits the most from Read Aloud. “I have a great gig,” he said.

Nikki Moses is the former editor of the Read Aloud newsletter and a board member.

The community that reads together

By Nikki Moses

If you asked, “What are YOU Reading?” in Randolph County last winter, you most likely heard a resounding retort: To Kill a Mockingbird. The GFWC Elkins Woman’s Club, the Rotary Club, students from Elkins Mountain School and others came together to read Harper Lee’s classic in February.

The effort was led by Randolph County’s Read Aloud President, Mary Boyd, and supported by the Women’s Club, which gave $100. They challenged the Rotary to read, hosted an essay contest with a $50 prize and invited the community to a screening of the movie version of the book at the Old Brick Playhouse in Elkins.

The essay prize was captured by a tenth grader at Elkins Mountain School. Teacher Heidi Jeffries “took this project and ran with it,” Boyd said. “She read the book with 60 students, and they really connected with it.”

One was the young man who walked away with the essay prize. “He was over the moon,” Boyd said.

People were asked to write about what, if any, prejudices exist against African Americans. The essay contest winner responded that although prejudice is less prevalent  and less evident than it used to be, it still exists, and not for African Americans alone.

“The prejudice portrayed in the book is something I know firsthand. I am not an African American, although I’ve been discriminated against due to size, attractiveness and ethnic background. I am treated differently because I’m in placement and I also don’t have a family and am made fun of because of it. I tolerate this on a daily basis, and know it won’t stop but will continue.

One time I was at school when another kid found out that I was in a placement facility as a ward of the state and didn’t have a family. They announced that no one should make acquaintance with me or hang out with someone like me. I heard another student make a comment about me, ‘He doesn’t have a family and he’s a juvenile, he’s bound to be trouble; and if you hang around someone like that you’re bound to be in trouble too.’ All of my friends or the people that I thought were my friends instantly quarantined me. It was a big blow and this hurt. In these circumstances it didn’t end justly.”

Boyd said preliminary plans are underway for another reading event in the fall. She is a Randolph County pediatrician who has also participated in the Reach Out and Read program, where patients ages six months to five years receive a book each time they visit her for a checkup, for more than 20 years.

Nikki Moses is the former editor of the Read Aloud newsletter and a board member. She is an active volunteer in the Charleston community.


Photo courtesy of Mary Boyd: Boyd and teacher Heidi Jeffries visit with the winner of the To Kill a Mockingbird essay contest.