The first-grader at Kalmiopsis Elementary struggled valiantly to pronounce a word in the book he was reading andndash; once, twice and finally a third time before I stepped in to help.

"So close!" I said, encouragingly.

His beaming smile was contagious. He finished the book and quickly found another andndash; one about dinosaurs.

"Dinosaurs are my favorite!" he said.

"Mine, too!" I replied, and we started reading the first page together.

Similar scenes were happening all around us in teacher Dan Rotterman's class as volunteers and students came together via the SMART (Start Making A Reader Today) program.

For most of the school year, volunteers spent an hour or two, once or twice a week, providing one-on-one attention with students in kindergarten through third grade who needed a little help with their reading. The students also received free books to take home.

This was the second year I've volunteered for SMART, and I'll do again next year if asked.

This year, 45 students were served by 21 volunteers, said SMART Coordinator Caroline McEssy.

That number dropped to 39 students in the last month or so as students moved out of the district or improved enough that they no longer needed the extra help, McEssy said.

"It was a great year," she said. "A lot of these kids are reading very slow at the beginning and then speed up through the year. Seeing the progress really makes me happy."

Over the past two decades, SMART has steadily grown to become Oregon's largest volunteer literacy program. Children in the program receive 14 new books throughout the school year to keep and read with their families.

SMART, with support from communities and schools around the state, is improving the reading capacity of Oregon's children.

The 2011-12 school year was a big one for SMART, with 160 volunteers reaching 270 students in Curry, Coos and Western Douglas counties, said Cheryl Brown, SMART manager for those areas.

Statewide, SMART served 8,600 kids at 246 sites in a seven-month period, marking a steady upward trend in service numbers since 2009, Brown said.

"The community has worked hard to get SMART into their schools; It's important that we keep these services up and running to continue to provide books and mentorship to the kids who need it most," Brown said.

Last year, SMART served 7,300 children statewide and aimed to increase that number by 400 this year. It surpassed the goal by reaching a total of 1,200, she said.

Brown credited the success to school officials willing to partner with SMART, and community volunteers who work with students to strengthen reading skills and encourage a love of reading.

Take it from me. This program works. Reading skills are critical to the success of a child's education, and there's nothing more endearing than seeing a child sit up a little taller as they master words they once thought impossible.

If you have an hour a week to volunteer, please visit or call 541-266-7476 to learn more about SMART.

A little bit of your time can make a huge difference. I hope to see you in the classroom next year.