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This Mr. T is no tough guy, but a gentle friend to students

Volunteer retiree helps them with reading


Inside an Early Childhood Center locker, Charles Travis keeps a pile of books, stories he has collected from Goodwill and labeled by reading level for first-grade teacher Carol Jewell’s students.

Monday through Wednesday mornings, for two hours each day, Travis, or “Mr. T” as the children call him, pulls out his books and invites two or three students at a time to read to him and play a sight-word game. They eagerly ask, “Do I get to read with you today, Mr. T?”

Powered by Parents is a series highlighting the parents, grandparents and other family members who give their time in schools to help students and teachers do their best.

Le’on Cardona reads, helped along by “Mr. T”

Travis, 83, is a retired General Motors toolmaker who has spent the past six years devoting six hours a week to helping students at the ECC.

He first discovered how much he loved volunteering with children while participating in a city of Wyoming Senior Center program more than a decade ago. He has also volunteered for the after-school program TEAM 21, and at Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School, in Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“I wish I would have started doing this earlier. I really enjoy it,” Travis said. “One of the reasons I enjoy this so much is because it’s like having 22 or 23 little grandchildren. … It wasn’t altruistic on my part.”

The Grandville High School graduate, who has three children and three grandchildren of his own with his wife, Charlene, never thought about becoming a teacher until he started spending time with students. He learned how much he enjoys helping them grow in their reading and English skills. He works with students who struggle in reading two days a week, and with students at grade level and higher one day a week.

“Sometimes I think maybe I missed my calling,” he said. “I get a lot of love from these kids, almost like real grandchildren.”

Charles Travis, better known as “Mr. T,” gives Emma Torrez a big hug

Helping ELL Students

At Godfrey-Lee, about 50 percent of students are English-language learners, a population Travis enjoys serving.

“I like the idea that I am helping them extend their universe in learning English, helping them become better citizens that way,” Travis said. “Seeing them progress, that’s the main thing.”

On a recent Wednesday, first-graders Ulises Aguilar, Faith Belmont and Gabriela Cardona-Mendoza sat down at a table outside their classroom to read for “Mr. T,” showing their skills and listening to each other read.

One of the best things about Mr. T, they said, is the games he plays with them, and the books he shares. “He lets me take the books home with me,” Gabriella said.

“The thing he does is teach students to read better,” said Ulises.

Along with books, he gives them loads of encouragement and is always happy to see them. “I get a lot of hugs from him,” said first-grader Emma Torrez.

‘One of the reasons I enjoy this so much is because it’s like having 22 or 23 little grandchildren.’ — volunteer Charles Travis, aka “Mr. T”

Jewell said many of her students are below grade level in reading, but show huge growth. Having a devoted volunteer six hours a week is a major asset, she said.

“They may not all reach grade level, but hey have all already made more than a year’s growth in their reading. He’s a huge part of that,” Jewell said. “He is a huge reason my kids are successful.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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