By Dan Russo
CEDAR RAPIDS — Teacher Matthew Reitzel made it his goal to read books to every grade at All Saints Catholic School during this year’s America Reads Day. To make the effort even more memorable for the students, he decided to wear the clothes he uses when serving in the Iowa Army National Guard — boots with pants and a shirt of mixed colors sometimes called “OCPs” or “Operational Camouflage Patterns.”
“I felt I should start a tradition,” said the 25-year-old fourth-grade teacher. “The kids don’t usually see me in my uniform. I felt I could show them my other career and that I’m part of our community.”
Reitzel, a Xavier Catholic High School and Iowa State University graduate, is now in his first year teaching at the elementary school he attended. He serves on a part-time basis with the guard as a military policeman and recently attained the rank of second lieutenant. He was one of about 100 people who came from both within and outside All Saints Parish Oct. 17 to read to students from preschool through fifth grade.
The annual event, held this year Oct. 17-18, involves Catholic and public schools around the Cedar Rapids metro area. The celebrations are part of a national America Reads literacy challenge. All Saints School is known for going all out every year, with 2019 raising an already high bar even higher. Visitors included local firefighters, police, other first responders, players from the Roughriders Hockey Club, members of the clergy, family of the students and representatives from Mt. Mercy University’s athletic programs, among many others. At least 23 volunteers read to multiple classrooms.
“Since the three years I’ve been here, it’s grown so much,” said Megan Boomgarden, All Saints’ principal. “We end the day with a big presenter. This year it was (KCRG TV meteorologist) Joe Winters.”
The aim of the event is not only to spur excitement for one day, but also to encourage a lifelong passion for reading in young people.
“I think it’s really about helping children see that reading is not just something you have to learn, but something that is fun and enjoyable,” said Karen Speirs, an All Saints parent who co-chairs the America Reads committee with Jen Syzmanowski.
Speirs, who also works with the Cedar Rapids Community School District as an America Reads representative, says when children witness people they look up to reading to them, it can inspire them to become better readers, especially students who are struggling. The event also forges connections between Catholic schools and other organizations and people.
“It’s nice to see how it expands to the broader community,” said Speirs.
This year’s America Reads Day fit nicely with All Saints’ theme for the year, which is summed up in the word “HERO” — Helping Everyone Respect Others. The week of America Reads Day, All Saints students had a chance to dress up. Monday was Marvel/comic heroes; Tuesday was community heroes (like teachers or doctors and nurses); Wednesday was heroes of the church (such as saints or everyday church workers); Thursday was the hero in you day; and Friday was heroes in history.
In the case of Matthew Reitzel, his contact with everyday heroes was critical to helping him figure out his direction in life.
“When I went to Iowa State, I ended up switching my majors,” recalled Reitzel. “I went there for engineering. … I took the leap of getting into the field of teaching. I fell in love with it. One of my teachers here at All Saints set the path for me.”
Reitzel specifically credits his All Saints second grade teacher, Pat Brunner, now retired, for cultivating his interest in becoming an educator.
When it comes to his other career in the Iowa Army National Guard, Reitzel believes his time in the Boy Scouts laid the foundation for it. When he was young, his Scout troop attended an event at a U.S. Army base, which helped plant a seed. He was able to become an Eagle Scout by age 18 and joined the guard during his final year in college.
“I signed up my last semester and spent five months training after graduation,” he said.
Reitzel now spends one weekend a month drilling with the guard and trains for an additional two weeks per year. He can also be called to service in emergencies.
During his visits to All Saints classes for America Reads, he chose books appropriate for each grade level, including “The Big Pumpkin” by Erica Silverman, one of his favorites when he was a child. He had fun reading this year and is hoping to do it again next year.
“The fourth and fifth graders already know me,” he said. “The lower grades got to talk to me. I got a chance to meet different students.”
All Saints School teacher Matthew Reitzel reads to students in his Iowa Army National Guard uniform. (Contributed photo)