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Reading to Kids Hones Actors’ Skills

SAG Foundation’s BookPals is not only a great way to be of service, it keeps the instrument humming

In all his years as an actor, Mark A. Neely has worked with a lot of directors. But some of the best acting advice he’s ever received was from a fourth-grader.

Neely and Sally Schaub are the SAG Foundation’s BookPals of the Year. During the school year, they collectively read to 24 elementary classrooms every week in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Neely began his career as a voiceover artist in San Francisco and was cast in films, TV commercials, national voice ads and print. He started volunteering as a BookPal in Oakland, Calif., more than 10 years ago.

“There is no better training for animation,” he says. “I thought I was doing a really good job, and one day a little fourth-grade girl looks at me with a straight face and says, ‘Can you read with a little more enthusiasm? I think it will improve the book.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’ Turns out she was exactly right, and I realized I have to give it my all every time I read.”

BookPals (Performing Artists for Literacy in Schools) is a national program administered by the nonprofit Screen Actors Guild Foundation. Its goal is to foster students’ imagination and connection to books.

The program is celebrating its 20th anniversary, with volunteers having read to more than 2.5 million children nationwide.

It’s a good fit for Schaub, who attended Penn State to study elementary education, but the acting bug led her to join SAG and AFTRA in 1975 in San Francisco. By 1999, she combined her talent and educational background to become a BookPal.

“Sometimes I cast the kids in roles of the characters,” Schaub says. “They are funny books, and the kids get up in front of the class and perform the book like a play. It’s always a good experience.”

Schaub also believes her work with the kids extends outside of the classroom. “I encourage them to read to their brothers, sisters and parents,” she says. “It helps a younger sibling learn to read when an older sibling reads to them.”

Incorporating music and exercise into their school visits, both BookPals have seen continual success, and say they have been treated like rock stars by the students.

More than 2,200 SAG-AFTRA performers regularly volunteer their time and talent for BookPals to read aloud to kids in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Florida and Arizona. For Schaub and Neely, it’s been an experience that has given something back.

“It’s my key to happiness — the volunteer work,” Schaub says. Neely notes that the BookPals feeds into his acting career, because kids will say anything “with no pretense and no filter.”

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