Every Thursday, Joan Ouelette arrives at Burns Latino Studies Academy and selects a book she hopes will appeal to her audience.

That audience bounds through the door in the form of Yamaris, a third grader whose personality precedes her: she squeals with delight at the sight of Joan, offering up french fries from the hot lunch. They settle in to read the latest adventures of Frog and Toad, Yamaris transfixed by the travails of an iconic aquatic duo.

Joan became a reading buddy to Yamaris three years ago. Back then, Yamaris was a new arrival from Puerto Rico, a shy English Language Learner grasping the beginnings of school in an unfamiliar city. Over the three years that Joan has read to her, she’s witnessed a remarkable transformation, one that speaks to the power of what a positive role model can do.

Theirs is a bond that is truly special: together, they have read over 70 books, exploring the depths of the ocean and the wonders of the solar system. Over that time, Yamaris became fluent in English. She also gained confidence in her reading abilities.

“Every time there’s a school vacation,” notes COMPASS Community School Coordinator Enrique Sierra, “these two need at least a half hour to catch up. Yamaris gets so excited to see Joan, and to tell her all the things she’s been up to.”

Joan became a volunteer reader while an employee of Aetna. Despite retiring last year after 27 years, she considers herself a lifetime Aetna volunteer.

“I absolutely loved Aetna,” she explains. “I hated to leave, but with family commitments, it was just time. Brenda [Pabon] was one of the first people I went to when I was retiring. I asked if I could still volunteer on behalf of Aetna, and her support made the transition to retirement that much easier.”

Brenda Pabon is the Program Consultant of Community Relations and Urban Marketing for Aetna. She, along with Senior Managing Director Chris Montross, develops employee engagement on behalf of Aetna’s Hartford workforce. Through a long-standing relationship with the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut, they support a variety of initiatives across the city.

Neighboring Burns Latino Studies Academy is a natural school partner.

“Burns is so close that our employees can walk over to volunteer on a lunch break,” explains Brenda. “Within the building, COMPASS is like that connective tissue – we know we can depend on them to help us make the best possible impact.”

For Elizabeth Giannetta-Ramos, the COMPASS Director of Partnerships, Aetna is a lifesaver.  When a Burns family lost everything in a home fire, the Aetna team rallied to provide care packages and monetary donations. Their support provided a much-needed buffer while the family searched for housing.

“I tell Brenda one story and she comes back the next day with a backpack of stuff,” notes Liz. “She is the perfect representation of what a community leader should be.”

It’s a commitment that extends far beyond fulfilling emergency needs, although Aetna’s sponsorship of clothing drives and food pantries makes a tangible difference. Thanks to the Aetna team, the students at Burns also have access to a variety of enrichment opportunities.

“They pay for transportation to enrichments like boxing, and they covered the cost of a trip to the Rhode Island Zoo,” Liz explains. Every October, Aetna sponsors a Hispanic Heritage Essay Contest, and throughout the year Aetna volunteers show up in support of various literacy activities.

There are innumerable ways to get involved. Patrick Doyle, the Senior Community Engagement Manager for the United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut, states that the volunteer readers program is far from full. At schools in and around Hartford, there are plenty of students waiting to match with a reading buddy. Potential volunteers can register directly through the United Way’s website.

As for Joan Ouelette, she has every intention of staying on as a reading buddy with Yamaris – never mind that the program is for students in grades K-3. “We have a lot to read!” she exclaims with a laugh.  Whoever she reads to, Joan hopes to exemplify the ethos of a company she holds so dear.

“Aetna really cares about the health of the community,” she concludes. “Not just the physical health. This company really cares about the community’s well-being. It’s been a privilege to be a part of.”

By: Clare Timmis
Feature Photo Credit: Joan Ouelette, 2017 | Julie Burbank