Focused on growth: Literacy group offers free tutoring; open house this week at YMCA

A team of Brown County community members has founded a nonprofit organization with a goal to offer free tutoring services to any and all who struggle with reading.

The organization, called READy to R.E.A.D., recently opened a permanent classroom at the Brown County Community YMCA.

Cassie Stratton is the president and lead literacy specialist for the organization and is an experienced educator with training in providing service to students who struggle with dyslexia.

After getting an undergraduate degree at Grand Valley State University, Stratton moved abroad and taught for 15 years. She lived and taught in many countries, including Italy, Montenegro, South Korea, Russia and Japan.

While she was in Japan, she was offered a fellowship at Marion University. She accepted, moved to Indianapolis and got a master’s degree in elementary education and her licensure in English language learners.

Stratton then worked for Indianapolis Public Schools before moving Brown County to live with her partner, Kyle Birkemeier, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Due to pandemic restrictions — on top of just having a baby — Stratton began teaching online.

Towards the end of the pandemic, Stratton said she went to a family resource festival at Deer Run Park to learn more about the community and what was available. There she connected with Debbie Harman who helped her get established in the community and schools.

Harman is the director of student support services for the Brown County School Corporation.

After gaining some new community and school connections, Stratton resumed tutoring in person.

She said that she began to learn about the need for more affordable educational and tutoring services in the community, especially for those who suffer from dyslexia.

In order to be diagnosed with dyslexia, Stratton said, an individual can pay up to $2,000, which may or may not be covered by insurance.

Interventions after the diagnosis can be up to $100 per session she said.

“That obviously makes reading — which is a fundamental civil right — restrictive to many … I don’t think you should have to pay for learning if you can’t afford it,” she said.

“Learning should be free, especially something as fundamental as reading.”

For a while, Stratton was doing the READy to R.E.A.D. program part-time, while teaching full-time online and doing compliance work at schools for the English Language Learners program.

She had two students in the program, and she said more and more people kept approaching her for resources or help.

“The more people asked, the more I wanted to help,” she said.

She then decided to resign from teaching online and focus her energy on growing READy to R.E.A.D. into a service for the community.

“It is my passion,” she said.

“I am a certified reading specialist, and I am also certified in dyslexia, so this is really what I love to do.”

‘Cracking the code’

No matter where she has lived, Stratton said she has always been involved with the community.

In South Korea, she founded a nonprofit that raised funds for orphans to be able to receive private lessons to help them in school.

Similarly, while Stratton was living in Russia, she worked in a school in a small community outside of Moscow, which she described as a “very rich” area.

She said she approached the director of the school to start a weekend program to help “less fortunate” children receive educational services.

“I started because I have always given back to the community, it’s the way I was raised,” she said.

In July of 2022, READy to R.E.A.D. was approved by the federal government as a nonprofit.

Stratton shared gratitude for the READy to R.E.A.D. board, which includes Laura McCracken as secretary and Kenneth Birkemeier as treasurer.

Alane Lovell, Carol Birkemeier, Alan Birkemeier and Kyle Birkemeier serve as members.

“I cannot stress enough how vital their support has been to making all this happen,” Stratton said.

In the beginning, they used any space for tutoring that they could, but Stratton knew that a permanent location to set up a classroom was a need for the future of the program.

She gave a presentation to the Brown County Rotary Club about the program, dyslexia and the lack of space required to take on more students.

Stratton said that YMCA CEO Kim Robinson raised her hand and offered the classroom space at the Y.

“This is a gift. It takes a huge chunk of our operating budget away,” she said.

“With the opening of this classroom, and small group instruction, I was able to open up the waiting list.”

There are currently 13 active students, ranging from second to sixth grade. That number will continue to grow once Stratton meets one-on-one with students in the waiting list to assess their reading levels.

“Typically what we start with is a screener, and we’ll sit down and I’ll see where they are and what hole needs to be filled,” she said.

“Once I see where they fit, I can put them in a group. And I do small groups of three, no larger than three, because research has shown that is most effective.”

Stratton also said the goal is to help anyone who struggles with reading, not just children that have been diagnosed with dyslexia.

“We do service from pre-literacy, which would be 3-year-old, all the way to 99,” she said.

“If you have difficulties in reading, there isn’t an age limit.”

A large focus of the READy to R.E.A.D. lessons is to help students feel confident in the face of challenges.

Stratton said that most often, when people are faced with something they cannot do, they begin to hate it. She said that is a serious problem when it comes to working with people on reading.

To overcome that challenge, Stratton starts sessions with engaging educational activities that turn learning into a fun thing for her students to do.

After breaking the ice and getting students interested in learning, each lesson is very structured with research-based methodologies and strategies.

“We’re working at the child’s level, exactly what they need to crack the code of reading, the alphabetic code,” Stratton said.

Along with engaging the students and providing a structured lesson plan, Stratton also tracks the progress of all of her students, and shares updates intermittently throughout the year.

Looking towards the future, Stratton said READy to R.E.A.D. is focused on growth.

She envisions one day being able to service neighboring counties, provide support for teachers and even apply her experience with online education to be able to include students farther away.

To accomplish these milestones, they are seeking to hire active or retired teachers as literacy interventionists, which would allow more students in the program.

Another focus is securing more funding through grant writing, an area where Stratton said assistance is needed.

“I want to make sure that I don’t have to put people on a waiting list, and anybody who needs help with reading can get it,” she said.


READy to R.E.A.D. will host an open house at the Brown County YMCA, 105 Willow St. on Friday, Jan. 27 from 4 to 7 p.m.

Drop by to see their new classroom, chat about literacy, engage in a learning activity with your child, or to show your support.

There will be refreshments and light snacks available.