Aided by ARISE2read, this student says thanks to volunteers via a video message. (Screen capture)

ARISE2Read, the religious-based organization with a mission to have the inner city’s second graders reading at third-grade level, is making adjustments to effectively continue its mission during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Karen E. Vogelsang (Courtesy photo)

“We have created a virtual platform so that our volunteers will be able to work with students virtually. …The teachers and administrators (at local schools served by the organization) are “working hard to make sure things run smoothly,” said Karen E. Vogelsang, the organization’s executive director.

The volunteer tutors commit to serve for one hour a week, coaching two students, one each for 30 minutes.

ARISE2Read also provides every second grader in ARISE2Read schools 8 to 10 brand new books each year.

Lavonice Williams of Collierville, a licensed mental health counselor, is one of those volunteers. Originally from Clearwater, Fla., she moved to Memphis in 2001 and has been in practice since 2007. Her firm is WholeHeart Women’s Christian Counseling, which primarily works with women and adolescent girls.

“I wanted to serve and also share the vision of (ARISE2Read) (President and) Founder Donna Gaines,” Williams said.

Asked what she enjoys about tutoring, Williams said, “Being there; building a connection with the students. … It’s just a joyful experience watching them build their self-esteem. …”

She tutored at Treadwell Elementary School, the program’s original school, in Highland Heights last year.

Gaines, the wife of Bellevue Baptist Church’s Senior Pastor Steve Gaines, started ARISE2Read, a faith-based literacy program for second graders in the greater Memphis area, in 2012. The program was in 41 schools last year, Voglesang said.

Vogelsang said the majority of the students supported by the organization are African American.

“We have several schools, where there is a high population of Hispanic students that we serve,” she said.

Vogelsang has been ARISE2Read’s executive director for 2½ years. She was a banker for 15 years before making a career switch to education in 2003, joining the legacy Memphis City Schools. She taught mostly at Keystone Elementary in the Raleigh-Frayser area.

She was named the 2014-2015 Tennessee Teacher of the year.

“Reading is critical to whatever you want to do,” she said.

Research has shown that children living in poverty, who read proficiently by the end of the third grade, have an 89 percent graduation rate.

So, Vogelsang said, that statistic makes the organization’s mission crucially important.

About 24 percent of third graders in Shelby County Schools scored proficient in reading on the state’s standardized assessment TNReady, according to numbers released in August 2019.

SCS has a goal to have 90 percent of its third graders reading proficiently by the year 2025.

Shelby County Schools are holding classes virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That presents challenges and opportunities for ARISE2Read, Vogelsang said.

The challenge is how to tutor students in a virtual setting. That also brings concerns about utility service cutoffs at financially challenged households, which could stifle virtual learning.

Still, virtual learning offers an opportunity to serve more students.

She said her “hope and prayer” are that this may allow tutors to serve more students by, among, other things, saving travel time and allowing more flexible scheduling for tutors.

On another positive note, Voglesang said she had conversations with Highland Heights Baptist Church about on-site tutoring.

Also, the organization is working with a YMCA Leaning Hub to use its staff and students to help tutor.

ARISE2Read has tutored some 1,200 second-graders a year over the past two years, including 1,235 last year.

Vogelsang personally has been in the tutoring trenches, supporting students at three different schools last year.

The organization trained 1,161 volunteers last year. Vogelsang said volunteers come from all walks of life and the organization also partners with government agencies and other nonprofits for volunteers.

For more information about ARISE2Read go to or call 901-347-5545.

(Jerome Wright is deputy editor for The New Tri-State Defender. Email him at [email protected])