Searching for community led Guadalupe Panameño to books and Raising A Reader MA in 2007, and nearly 15 years later, the Greater Boston Program Manager remains tied to RAR-MA and its mission.

“It was so important to encourage and teach my children the love of reading to change their future. I feel like being involved in Raising A Reader MA has opened that perspective for me. I learned something new. I’m not going to keep it to myself. I feel like I am doing [this] for my community. If you can change someone’s life with your work or example, that is very positive, and Raising A Reader MA gave me the opportunity to do that.”

In 2007, Guadalupe Panameño, now the Greater Boston Program Manager for Raising A Reader MA (RAR-MA), first brought her daughter to the Chelsea Revere Family Network. She took a bus from her home in Revere to the community-based playgroup in neighboring Chelsea. Panameño, who moved from El Salvador to the United States in 2003, was searching for a way to connect with the community. Without strong English skills at the time, she looked forward to interacting with other Spanish speakers at the playgroup.

Searching for community led Panameño to books. The Chelsea Revere Family Network had become one of RAR-MA’s inaugural partners upon its Massachusetts establishment in 2006, exposing Panameño and her two-year-old daughter to a world of books at the Chelsea-based playgroup a year later.

Back home in El Salvador, her family considered reading a task, she said. Although her father loved books and read the newspaper every day with Panameño, he did not know how to teach the love of reading, she said. She thought reading was for school and assignments, not for joy or learning. Even at school, which had only one textbook, Panameño remembers learning far more about math, which her mother helped her learn, and with numbers than through books. Because she lacked access to children’s books — the only reading activity in which she participated was reading the newspaper with her father — reading was not on her radar as a young student and she struggled with reading in middle school, preferring to work with formulas and math. 

When Panameño began raising her own daughter, she did not initially prioritize reading with her, but the Chelsea Revere Family Network and the RAR-MA Red Book Bag changed that. Panameño saw books in a new light.

“I learned the importance of reading,” she said. “It was so powerful to me … Right before receiving the [red] bag, I decided to buy books [for my daughter, Alexandra], and I saw how she enjoyed it — just holding a book. And it was something that I never experienced, so it was new for me and also was new for my daughter.”

Panameño and Alexandra, who will be 15 at the end of the year, developed a reading routine around the Red Book Bag, fostering a mutual love for books that remained when she gave birth to her son Henry, who is now 12. In addition to books, the red bag contained an orientation DVD, and each time they returned from the playgroup, she and Alexandra would watch the same short DVD before reading together.

Witnessing the brain development of her children was powerful for Panameño. She saw firsthand how reading routines and connections established through dialogic reading — the practice of engaging children with questions and conversations over the course of a shared book — were contributing to her children’s growth. Through personal experience, she grew fascinated by how reading helped mold her children. Panameño described the realization as her aha moment.

She began to assist as a playgroup facilitator at the Chelsea Revere Family Network before volunteering for RAR-MA in Revere. She helped with workshops, translated materials between Spanish and English, and made phone calls to engage more in the community with RAR-MA.

Soon, her involvement increased with more formal roles. She became a Parent Ambassador in 2012 and assisted with community outreach and parent and caregiver workshops before jumping into the Parent Liaison position in November 2015. She enjoyed connecting with parents and aiding new Parent Ambassadors, and looks back on the position as one of her favorites.

In the fall of 2018, she assumed the Program Coordinator role for Greater Boston and continued to offer parent workshops in both Spanish and English, supporting parents and reading routines in the Greater Boston community. Another promotion came in August 2019, as Panameño became Greater Boston Program Manager, a position she continues to hold today. As Program Manager, she coordinates with a caseload of 25 program partners in RAR-MA. 

“It was so important to encourage and teach my children to read to change their future,” Panameño said. “I feel like being involved in Raising A Reader has opened that perspective for me. I learned something new. I’m not going to keep it to myself. I feel like I am doing [this] for my community. If you can change someone’s life with your work or example, that is very positive, and Raising A Reader MA gave me the opportunity to do that.”

Education has always been important to her. Panameño said her mother planted the seeds of learning in her and emphasized the importance of education to her children. Panameño’s father, meanwhile, was an electronic technician, and growing up around his work inspired her to pursue an engineering career. Although she moved to America while still in the process of completing her electrical engineering degree, she hopes to finish a degree in the next ten years. While staying connected with RAR-MA, she also hopes to open an education-focussed business or a preschool in Revere in the future.

For now, Panameño is focused on helping RAR-MA programs adapt to the realities of virtual workshops and remote reading. Finding creative ways to engage with parents in the setting of a Zoom workshop has been challenging — she said the in-person interaction that workshops typically facilitate can be powerful for parents and community building. But at the same time, Panameño is pleased that virtual workshops are educating new groups, reaching parents and families who are often unable to attend workshops in person. 

Recently, she and her daughter led virtual storytimes with the book The Happy Day, a story written by Ruth Krauss and illustrated by Marc Simont. The book was one of her children’s favorites, and Panameño’s daughter Alexandra read the story in English, while Guadalupe read it in Spanish.

With her daughter now volunteering for RAR-MA, Panameño’s sustained involvement with the organization has come full circle. Thanks to Guadalupe and the rest of the Program Manager team, RAR-MA is able to share the joy of reading with children in high-need communities across the Commonwealth.