By Christopher Smith
The memory of exhaustion under 100-plus degree weather, while working in a tomato field in Florida, is never far from Rolando Ortiz’s mind, he says, especially when he looks at his children.
The immigrant from Guatemala said he never wants to see his four children — Eric, 12, Gary, 7, Angie, 6, and Yojan, 1 — work as hard as he had to when he first came to this country several years ago.
“I don’t have an education,” he said, speaking through Dalton Public Schools interpreter Vicky Cervantes. “With an education, you get a better job. Life is hard. Education makes it easier.”
That’s why Ortiz and his wife Blanca have participated with their children in the Big Red Reads program since 2010. The family came to Blue Ridge Elementary School Wednesday morning, continuing their tradition.
Program volunteers travel to different locations in the city each Wednesday during the summer and offer free book rentals to students to stave off summer learning loss.
For Gary, a Brookwood Elementary School fourth-grader, being able to read over the summer offers a chance to “imagine.”
“It makes me, like, see it,” he said with a smile after picking a book from a bin. “It’s like I’m in the real story.”
For Eric, a seventh-grader at Dalton Middle School, reading is more academic.
“I want to go to college,” he said. “Reading will help me do that.”
Rolando Ortiz said he’ll make sure all of his kids get a college education.
“We push our kids,” he said. “They have to make it. Education is very important. Reading is very important. It’s not about money, but, of course, with education you get paid better. Money isn’t everything, but life requires it.”
“It’s great to see them come out and get excited,” Blue Ridge reading recovery teacher Kerry Adams, who volunteers with the program, said of the kids. “They can come to the book tub to select a book in their age level. It’s all been organized so well by Alice Ensley.”
One way Ensley, the program’s coordinator, organizes the event is by keeping track of who picks up and returns books. Going through the lists is when she said she noticed the Ortiz family.
“We keep a record each week,” she said. “I noticed they came every week. I’ve been impressed by their commitment. They’re probably the only ones who have done that.”
The need to create a program for families like the Ortiz family became evident after a survey in 2009, Ensley said.
“We sent the survey to parents, asked them how many books they had in their homes,” she said. “The response was eye opening. A lot of them didn’t have very many books or access to books.”
While developing the program, Ensley heard a story about a man in Columbia who took books into hard to access neighborhoods by donkey.
“I thought if he could do that, we can do something,” she said.
Something that makes city schools unique, Rolando Ortiz said, and a reason he hopes to stay in Whitfield County for the foreseeable future.
“A lot of families have to move to find jobs, but this is where we’ve raised our family and where our kids call home. It’s our community,” he said. “We have a life and jobs here.”
“I look for them now,” Ensley said. “I check my cards to see if they came. They’ve come so many times. They definitely have a commitment to read and learn.”