By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
RIVERSIDE — Surrounded by more than 40 elementary school students Friday afternoon, Pat and Tony Valenti told a story about the importance of smiling.
It was not the first time the couple from Coloma read to students at Riverside Elementary School in Hagar Township. The Valentis have spent the last four years visiting Southwest Michigan schools, reading stories to hundreds of students in an attempt to make reading more fun.
On Friday, the Valentis had one of the larger classes they have ever had, which was comprised of students from kindergarten to third grade. They were allotted a half hour to tell the tale of “Birdy’s Smile.”
They’re not normal story tellers, though.
When Pat reads a story out loud, she asks audience members a series of questions. Sometimes she asks students to get involved by acting the way the book’s characters do. Things were no different Friday as Valenti had students jumping and clawing under their arms in an attempt to mimic monkeys.
“I love reading to kids,” said Pat, who is 76 and originally from Dowagiac. “This is our project. We don’t have anyone help us and there are no donations. A lot of people ask us what we charge, but we don’t charge anything.”
The entertainment aspect comes from Tony.
The 85-year-old graduated from Benton Harbor High School in 1949, but still finds time to visit schools with his wife of 53 years. When Pat reads to students, Tony uses various props to coincide with the narrative.
The couple wore matching T-shirts Friday, which depicted the main character of the book along with her pet dog named French Fry. They passed around a moon replica that lit up in the dark and gave each student the chance to look inside the book and smile at a makeshift mirror. Toward the end of the reading, Tony had students gather around in circles, where he blew a few bubbles for them to pop.
Pat said they do these things to keep students entertained and interactive.
After every reading, the Valentis hand out water bottles and bags with prizes inside. Tony packs all the gift bags with items that relate to the story.
“We’ve gotten to be a pretty good team. When we first started we would go classroom to classroom. Now they bring them to one central location,” Pat said. “We are not traveling as much anymore. It’s too hard for Tony to travel, and I am retired. This has replaced our traveling somewhat.”
The reading duo has been to several school districts, including Bangor, Benton Harbor, Bridgman, Coloma, Covert, Hartford, Sister Lakes, South Haven and Watervliet. The farthest they’ve gone with their books was Decatur, which was their last trip in 2015.
In Decatur, the Valentis put in work over two days by reading to about 270 students.
“We call the schools and set it up ourselves,” Pat said. “This is the first year we have had to get clearance with the state. They have gotten so strict with the schools. Most schools are now asking for clearance from the state.”
Pat said they began doing this as a way to give back to the community and have come to appreciate it for the small moments. While Tony said he enjoys coming up with new props to go along with the reading, Pat prefers what happens afterward.
“One of the things I really like is when the kids remember Tony, and a lot of times if he is sitting there, the little kids come up and give him a hug,” she said. “There are not a lot of grandpas that come to school. I like to see the faces and the participation that we get.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 5, 2016)