December 05, 2023

Program feeds minds, hearts and tummies of children in need

Florida restaurants serve up a hot breakfast with a reading mentor
The Bradenton Police Department, one of several local workplaces, gives its employees time off to mentor the program.

The Bradenton Police Department, one of several local workplaces, gives its employees time off to mentor the program.

It’s the breakfast combo that’s making a positive difference in the lives of over 600 at-risk Florida elementary school students each summer. During summer break, several restaurants throughout southwestern Florida serve up a literacy lesson along with a hot meal through the Dive Into Reading Program.
The program is designed to fight the “summer slide” of students’ reading skills—over two month’s skills loss, according to some research. “That's horrendous because in our community, over 50% of our children can't read at grade level at third grade,” says program co-founder Amanda Horne, who co-owns Anna Maria Oyster Bar (AMOB) with her husband, John Horne. “For them, to lose any amount of reading skill is just heartbreaking, because they will never be able to catch up at this rate.” 

The Hornes launched the program at AMOB’s Ellenton location in 2017, partnering with the School District of Manatee County, Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading and Manatee Public Libraries. Over the years, the program has expanded into two more AMOB locations as well as into other area restaurants, including Gecko’s Hospitality Group locations, Central CafĂ©, and O’brick’s Irish Pub & Martini Bar, and has extended to Sarasota and DeSoto county schools. Seven restaurant locations hosted the program this past summer. 
“We want to instill a love of reading, because if you can't read, what else can you do in life?” says Amanda Horne, emphasizing how difficult it is to succeed in school and on the job without reading skills. As John Horne is fond of saying, “From birth to third grade, we are taught to read, but from third grade onwards, we read to learn.”

A community of readers

Each morning, Monday through Thursday, a yellow school bus pulls up around 8:45 a.m. at the participating restaurants. The bus is packed with rising first, second, and third graders, who are struggling academically and are enrolled in summer school for a boost. After a welcoming activity, the kids go off to tables with volunteer mentors. Over a hot breakfast, they chat, practice their dining etiquette and, of course, read. “They’re learning some table skills, some people skills, as well as reading skills,” says John Horne, who is also board chair of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

Many volunteers are retired community members, often longtime guests. “Helping those two generations connect is really, really special,” says Eleni Sokos, director of brand strategy for Oysters Rock Hospitality, AMOB’s parent company. Students and mentors typically come from different socioeconomic strata, providing the opportunity to bond with someone they wouldn’t meet otherwise. “It's an almost magical melding of all these different people in a room together,” enthuses Sokos, a volunteer mentor herself. 

The program has blossomed into a communitywide effort. Servers, kitchen crew and other restaurant staff volunteer during their off hours, generously giving back to their community. Several local workplaces, including the Bradenton Police Department, give employees time off to mentor. “Their officers join in, and what I love about that is that it takes away the fear of the police,” says Amanda Horne. “They’re sitting there mentoring, and it just adds to the whole community spirit.” 

Around 10:30 a.m., the mentors form two lines toward the exit and cheer the students as they leave with high fives and shouts of “Great job!” and “Can’t wait to see you next week!” The students return each week for four to six weeks, depending on their school, and work with the same mentor each time, strengthening their bond. Most of the restaurants mentor a different group of students four days a week. See the program in action.

Reaping rewards

Dive Into Reading restaurants invest significantly in the program, staffing their locations before opening hours and paying teacher-coordinators to oversee each site. In-kind donations help keep costs in check. Broadline distributors, including U.S. Foods and Sysco donate breakfast foods and ingredients. The Early Learning Coalition of Manatee County contributes the books—about 4,000 each summer.

The program has received national attention, earning the National Restaurant Association’s prestigious Restaurant Neighbor Award, as well as local and state recognition with awards from the Manatee County school district, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Department of Education, and the Leadership Florida organization. 

For Amanda Horne, the biggest reward is seeing the smiling children at the program’s end, as they head out with a complimentary backpack filled with books and school supplies, ready for a new school year. Best of all, the students return to school with improved reading skills. Rather than sliding, the students are climbing, gaining a month or two of reading progress on average. Thrilled by the program’s success, the Hornes hope to inspire other restaurants to join their efforts. Says Amanda Horne: “We want to grow this throughout the state and even the country.”

If you’re interested in becoming a Dive Into Reading restaurant, or would like to start a similar program, contact Amanda Horne for more information.