By Susan Belgrave MBE, Beanstalk’s Founder and President. (Photographed 3rd from left, with some of our founding volunteers)

I became aware of the value of a friendly non-authoritarian figure in helping to sort out children’s problems when I was working as a School Care Worker in the 1960s. The scheme was based on the premise that knowing the child’s family as well as the child was the only way problems could be understood. At the same time friends who were magistrates would comment to me that often in juvenile court children could not read the oath.

Seeing the value of friendship and encouragement on the one hand and the lifelong limitations imposed by poor literacy on the other, I resolved that something could be done to encourage young children into reading and I set my mind to designing a solution to help disadvantaged young children avoid that trap. In the 14 years before returning to live in London my family and I had lived in various corners of the world, including New York City, where I had glimpsed the New York School Volunteer Program. Interestingly it was based on London’s School Care Service, though focussed on help with reading rather than social problems.

That memory and my incurable optimism combined and catalysed each other. I worked out a way in which it might prove possible to recruit and train volunteers to encourage children in primary schools to enjoy reading when they had been put off the whole process.

Months of networking led me to London’s Chief Primary Inspector who it was thought might lend my proposition a friendly ear. The law of chance was on my side and he allocated two primary schools in North Kensington that were participating in a programme for children with Special Needs to be the first hosts to myself and a few of the friends I had recruited to encourage children with their reading in this way. Thus began what was known as Volunteer Reading Help and its slow and patiently fostered spread. It was, and probably still is, the volunteers who achieved its growth by demonstrating to initially sceptical teachers the value of their work. We set up a small committee meeting in my kitchen and outlined the basic rules for this work, which still apply to Beanstalk today.

It is wonderful to see the organisation still going from strength to strength over forty years later. Now known as Beanstalk, that same simple idea of offering one-to-one encouragement to children struggling with their reading continues to change the lives of thousands of children every year.  I thank all the reading helpers, staff, supporters and friends who have made this happen since 1973 and most importantly the 140,000+ children who have benefitted from our help over the years.

If you would like to join Beanstalk’s thriving community of reading helpers and change a child’s life, then it’s really easy to get involved!