Dan Carter, chief of community affairs for ExxonMobil in Billings, stood in front of a room of fifth-graders at Lockwood Elementary School and extolled for them the virtues of reading.
He was joined by two other Exxon administrators and behind them they had a table full of books to give away.
“We think reading is really important,” Carter told them.
“You’ve got that right,” one of the students shouted out.
All morning on Monday, representatives from Exxon and First Interstate Bank visited classes at Lockwood, reading to students and handing out books. Students from Montana State University Billings spent part of the morning with them, helping out.
The refinery and the bank partnered at the start of the school year to volunteer at Lockwood and help the school promote better literacy among its students.
Carter said it may be a more natural fit for the two companies to come in and talk about technology and science or money management. And indeed, First Interstate has a program that takes it into schools to talk to kids about the basics of personal finance.
But literacy is the foundation on which every other academic pursuit is built and students won’t get far in science or math if they have no desire to read, Carter said.
So once a quarter, volunteers from the two companies visit classrooms and read to the kids.
It’s not as easy as it looks, said First Interstate Bank’s Amy Carter.
The last time she volunteered, she ended up in a classroom of third-graders reading a book about how tarantulas make babies.
“It was really awkward,” she said with a laugh.
Monday’s visit was smoother. The group of volunteers pulled little red wagons full of books from classroom to classroom, talking to the students about the importance of reading and leaving the books with the teachers to hand out.
Principal Mike Bowman explained that a big part of what makes the program work is the volunteers.
Students hear all the time from their teachers about the importance of reading. But when someone else comes into the classroom, be it an adult with a good career or an active college student, the students perk up and listen a little more closely, he said.
“It makes an impact,” Bowman said. “We want kids to be invested in reading.”