Mario Garcia, an East Aiken School of the Arts fourth-grader, couldn’t stop smiling after meeting and chatting with his four new teachers on Tuesday – a month into the school year.

They’re actually volunteers – Aiken Rotary Club members Collette Ball, Liz Stewart, Monica Key and Chrissey Miller.

Over the rest of the school year, they will rotate weekly 30-minute reading sessions with Mario and three other children.

The youngster said he likes to read chapter books, but acknowledged, “I’m not a reader like my brother.”

That’s the point of the Rotary Readers project. A total of 43 Rotarians, spouses and other volunteers will join dozens of fourth- and fifth-graders who can benefit from the sessions.

“I think about all the things our country and society need,” Stewart said. “The most important is to set up these children for success. Reading is such a critical component ... and we can add new dimensions to their lives.”

Principal Lisa Fallaw and faculty members created the project in collaboration with Rotary leaders. The club members will help the children reach grade-level reading skills. A team of four also will work with kindergarten students – determining if children that age will benefit as well.

Librarian Melanie Starks and guidance counselor Meredith Cassels led some ice-breakers for the adults and the students – such as asking each to make two statements of which one was true and the other not so true.

The kids were certain that Stewart couldn’t like surfing yet were really surprised she does, indeed.

“It’s great to see the kids get excited about this opportunity,” Starks said. “You’ll see their personalities emerge as the children get more comfortable and really have a good time. This is a chance where they can have someone with them who cares.”

Ball serves as Rotary Club’s literacy program coordinator.

“It’s such an honor to be part of Rotary,” she said. “There are statistics about the number of children that cannot read by the time they finish high school, but have gotten by. We need to reach them at an early age.”

The Rotary Readers program is serving as a pilot effort, club president Joe Shields said in a press release. With Fallaw, “we’ve developed what we think will be a fun and exciting way to help youngsters at this crucial age,” he said.

Potentially, the concept could spread to other Aiken County schools.

Superintendent Dr. Beth Everitt, a Rotary Club member, said in the release that “this effort will open new horizons for our students and help to set the stage for their future success.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter.

He has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.