BOWLING GREEN - Allie Smith and Kylie Keller pull up a seat on either side of Bryce Christensen's wheelchair and bring out a picture book whose silly rhymes put an instant smile on the 11-year-old's face.
Before long, the girls are singing from Pooh Melodies, another favorite. Bryce cannot speak, but his friends said they're sure he enjoys the books.
"He'll always laugh or smile when we read," Allie said.
The Conneaut Elementary sixth graders are among 16 Bowling Green students who have taken turns stopping at Bryce's house after school this year to read to him for half an hour. The volunteers were recognized last night by the board of education for sharing their time and talent.
"It's so nice for me to see kids doing this. I think so many times we tend to sell them short," Superintendent Hugh Caumartin said. "They don't get anything for it. We don't give them credit for it. I just think it's amazing."
So does Bryce's mom, Kim Christensen, who teaches early childhood special education classes at Bowling Green State University.
She organized the volunteer reading program nine years ago after Bryce suffered severe brain damage in a near-drowning accident when he was just 18 months old.
Mrs. Christensen and her husband, Eric, were told at the time that their son had no rehabilitative potential, that they ought to consider institutionalizing him. Instead, they took him home and began their own regiment of stimulating his vision, hearing, and touch.
He has nurses and a teacher who come to their house, but Mrs. Christensen said she's convinced having kids over to read to him has been a key part of his progress over the years too.
"Absolutely," she said. "You see how he laughs and smiles. He clearly loves this."
The volunteer reading program has been featured on local and national segments of the PBS children's show, ZOOM, and also is included in a ZOOM into reading booklet being distributed in kids' meals by the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain.
If others duplicate the idea Mrs. Christensen had after Bryce's accident, that would be just fine with her. She said it gives her son the opportunity to have friendships and social opportunities he wouldn't otherwise get to experience. It also helps other kids become more accepting of people with disabilities.
"Kids will come in and say 'Bryce, I have that same shirt,'●" Mrs. Christensen said, explaining her desire to dress him nicely. "I want kids to see the similarities. Obviously, there are differences, but I want them to know he's a boy just like they are."
The readers - most of them fourth, fifth, and sixth graders - show up as scheduled throughout the school year, and some even come during the summer to spend a half hour reading to or playing with Bryce.
Kylie and Allie have been spending time with Bryce for three years now.
"It feels good," Kylie explained simply. "We like helping people."
"I like to read, and I've always liked reading out loud to other people," Allie said. "And it's fun to be here with Kylie and the nurse."
"And Bryce, too!" Kylie ad-ded.
"Well of course, Bryce," Allie said.
More than 100 Bowling Green city school students have participated in the reading program over the years.
Mr. Caumartin said it has given students an appreciation for others with serious medical needs.
"So often we can go through life, and we read about these things, but we're really not touched by them. These kids are," he said.
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