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Cynthia’s Reader Story – ‘It’s given me a new stride in my step’ 

Written by Lily Kehoe, 3rd October 2023

Volunteer Cynthia leads a Shared Reading group in Kingston Library which is part of an innovative Arts Council England funded partnership of 4 South London library services (Merton, Sutton, Kingston and Croydon).   

To date, the partnership – called The Reading Retreat – has resulted in 16 new Shared Reading groups across South London, run by 22 volunteers and supported by local library staff. 

We spoke to Cynthia recently about her volunteer journey with The Reader and the benefits of Shared Reading. 

I first found out about Shared Reading when I was volunteering for Kingston Council during Covid. They sent out some information about opportunities to train as a Reader Leader and I thought ‘that sounds interesting.’ It was then that I went on The Reader’s online Read to Lead course. 

First of all I thought – ‘can I do this?’ The course was 4 hours every week for 6 weeks but then actually, right from the start, it was so welcoming, natural – that was the thing about it. So I first experienced Shared Reading on the Read to Lead course. Initially, I wondered ‘why are they reading so slowly?’ but by the end of the training, I liked the slowness, I learned to appreciate it. I realised in many ways that if someone reads too fast you miss the richness of it.   

Library support 

After training, I started running a group at Kingston Library. The staff have been so supportive – I’ve got my little space, they bring us tea and coffee, it is a safe place.  

We’re a small group – usually about 6 to 7 people, which works well. I’ve got regulars, including one group member who helps spread the word. Another group member has now trained as a Reader Leader, which is really good! They now co-lead with me, which is great.  

The group usually starts off with everyone having a chat about how the week has been, and then we’ll read a story and a poem. The group are very good at listening, and everyone contributes. I always try to be as open as I can. I’ve learned from the training how to welcome different views, so I feel I am as honest as I can be.  

Relating to literature 

One of the stories that I felt really helped us come together as a group was taken from Wintering by Katherine May from The Reader Bookshelf. I think this one really tapped into something that we could relate to – we don’t give ourselves time to winter. When, in the story, she moved to the hospital, a lot of the group found that difficult…but I think it is good for us to realise that we don’t know all the answers.  

Let’s keep our minds alive, keep our minds thinking. That sense of what we know and being comfortable with what we don’t know, and holding that open – that space is a really valuable one to keep holding for the group. It leaves you wondering, reflecting. With the story, it brought the natural world together with universal truths, and helped to bring that into our lives.  

A shared connection 

I love sharing stories that show us that we all have these difficulties – we are not alone, that this is part of life. Life is about realising we are connected so much more compared to what disconnects us. There was a definite ‘ah’ moment there from that story in the group. 

The group is about sharing our experiences through the literature and yet realising we can grow from it. It is not a static thing – it is like: ‘okay this happened to me, and I can sort of see it in a different light’.  

People have spoken in the group about situations that they’ve never told anyone else about before. The no judgment bit is a beautiful thing – I love at the end when they all leave with a smile on their face. I learn new things all the time about the people in my group.  

There’s one lady who was very shy and would come up to me at the end to and tell me her thoughts then but recently she offered to read aloud. I was so pleased! She read a bit and it was wonderful! I’m really looking forward to what’s next for her.  

Another member was very quiet at first but he’s really beginning to open up too now. And the member who’s done the Read to Lead training herself – it’s given her confidence. 

Different dimensions 

I’ve got a lot of experience with other activities –  having been an NHS responder, compassionate neighbour, a teacher of mindfulness – and I think the special thing about Shared Reading is the role of the literature. It all comes through the literature.  

I have now read stories I would probably never have read before so for me, personally, it’s opened up a world that I feel I never would have known about. It’s reinforced for me that through different literature there is a basic foundation for humanity. It has opened up a richness for me.  

The poetry has been wonderful – I never know what it means to me at first, but when I give myself that time and read it out loud to other people then it opens a new world – there are so many emotions.  

For me, being part of The Reader has added a different dimension to my understandings, my appreciation and my sorrows. I can’t praise it enough. It’s given me a new stride in my step. The possibility of rediscovering my emotions and dreams that have shaped my life – a way to look forward as well as reframing the past, and looking forward to new ways of thinking about the future through the literature. The literature has done that through the Shared Reading. 

As a charity we rely on the generous support of individuals and organisations to help us change lives through Shared Reading. A donation allows us to train volunteers, provide resources for groups and help reach more people. We want to make sure everyone can attend a Shared Reading group, no matter their background, income or situation, and we'll be so grateful for your help.

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