WATSONVILLE — To her friends, family and coworkers, Deanne Pernell was an energetic, caring teacher with a passion for teaching young people to read, and a particular affinity for bilingual education.

When she died in 2014 at age 59, Pernell’s loved ones began looking for a way to memorialize her.

On Friday, a group that included teachers and librarians gathered in Watsonville Public Library to unveil the Deanne Pernell Reading Mentors Program, which pairs young readers with volunteers in six-week sessions geared to build reading and comprehension skills.

The program is funded by a $50,000 gift from Pernell’s father, Godfrey Pernell.

“She was the best person I have ever known,” Pernell said. “This is an opportunity to help with something that she was passionate about.”

Community Foundation Santa Cruz County is managing the bequest.

Also called “Reading Buddies,” the program is slated to launch in Fall 2018.

The library will recruit volunteers to help with the free six-week program, who will be paired with children grouped according to their grade level. The volunteers will then be tasked with reading a book to the kids, and with helping them as they take turns reading. Training will be provided.

Participants will receive the book they read at the end of the program. Volunteer mentors must commit to come on weekends for six weeks.

Pernell is remembered as a social justice pioneer who founded Santa Cruz Women Against Rape, and helped create the first Introduction to Women’s Studies class at UC Santa Cruz.

She was also a plumber who found a love for working with children while working at Santa Cruz Toddler Care Center and Simcha Preschool during slow periods in the construction industry.

She returned to UCSC for her teaching credential, and then taught third grade at MacQuiddy Elementary School for 20 years.

Watsonville Library Director Carol Heitzig said she met Pernell when she was the children’s librarian and would read to Pernell’s students.

Heitzig said she was not a teacher who would merely bring her students and let the librarian do all the work.

“She was so involved with the children,” Heitzig said. “She was a wonderful person to work with.”

In addition to helping children learn to read, the program was also designed with parents in mind, said Watsonville Children’s Librarian Susan Nilsson.

According to Nilsson, parents ask the library for reading tutors for their children nearly every day, a service not possible due to staffing levels.

Parents, therefore, will receive coaching on how simple and effective one-on-one reading with their kids can be, and how to be more involved in their education, Nilsson said.

Pernell left behind her life partner Jan Shirchild, who she met in 1980 and married in 2013 after the United States Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act.

Shirchild said the project was three years in the making, and was inspired by a story stating that California prison officials plan future construction based on the numbers of children who cannot read by the third grade.

That story has since been debunked. Still, the spirit behind the program went unchanged.

“Getting kids to read was very important to her,” Shirchild said.

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