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Independence Elementary students embrace special reading buddies

Independence student reading with new buddyIndependence Elementary was unusually quiet for 20 minutes on the afternoon of Nov. 18. The typical sounds of children laughing and learning were replaced with the quiet whisper of pages turning, as the entire school – students and staff alike – took a special book break.

“When we asked Eli what was important to him, he said he would like all of the students at Independence to enjoy reading as much as him,” explained Heather Mahnken, whose son, Eli, was a first-grader at Independence. Eli passed away on Oct. 14, after battling a rare type of brain tumor for nearly four years. Eli’s sister Aubrey is a fourth-grader at Independence, and his brother Greg, now a seventh-grader, also attended Independence.

“We are so fortunate to have our kids go to Independence,” Heather Mahnken said. “They have been so supportive of our family.”

Pegasus ProjectThe Mahnkens said reading was one of Eli’s favorite things, especially when he shared books with his “reading buddy,” a stuffed pegasus, or winged horse. When Eli told his family that he wished every student at Independence could have a reading buddy, or a “stuffy,” as stuffed animals are often called these days, they went to work.

Eli’s father, Heather and David, put the word out to “Team Eli,” a group of family, friends, neighbors and community members who supported Eli throughout his illness. Within 12 hours, they had donated enough money to purchase nearly 600 small stuffies, more than enough for each of Independence’s 430 students.

Friendship Club members deliver bags of buddiesThen the Independence Friendship Club went to work. This group of fourth-graders, which includes Eli’s sister Aubrey, delivered a bag of buddies to each class at Independence, and shared a little bit about Eli and his love of reading.

Independence students with new reading buddiesAt 2 p.m. that day, every student grabbed their buddy and a favorite book and settled in for a reading respite. Increasingly, research shows that reading to or with a stuffed animal or other reading buddy helps reluctant readers become more confident and students become more engaged with reading and improve their reading skills. The book break was a great way to promote literacy and remember Eli.

“What I love about this community is the teachers have a love for learning and that is what Eli got from school,” Heather Mahnken said. “If there’s anything that Eli would want people to do, it’s to enjoy a good book.”

Posted 11/22/2022.