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PORTAGE — “A Stegosaurus. That’s my favorite dinosaur,” Central Elementary School first-grader Jionni Pabey announced Wednesday after receiving the stuffed lizard in class.

Pabey and his classmates received various stuffed animals through the Reading Buddies classroom literacy program sponsored by United Way of Porter County and Lake Area United Way.

Attorney Kenneth J. Allen, whose law firm provided $20,000 for the 4,000 Reading Buddies distributed to 175 classrooms in Porter, Lake and LaPorte counties, presented the stuffed critters to Cathy Boyle’s first-grade class at Central.

“It’s exciting to see kids develop and learn to read,” said Allen, who also read to Boyle’s class. “For some kids, it makes a real difference.”

Allen recalled an autistic child in 2016 who was having trouble reading. Once presented with a Reading Buddy, “he just blossomed,” Allen noted.

Central second-graders also received Reading Buddies. More were taken later that day to Beiriger Elementary in Griffith.

Rebecca Tucker, volunteer engagement manager for United Way of Porter County, said Reading Buddies has been a grass-roots effort for nearly a decade. Teachers, she noted, are encouraged to devote classroom time daily for students to read to their “buddies.”

This program, Tucker said, has boosted students’ oral fluency and reading ability.

“It improves their confidence to read,” Tucker said. “Shy kids will read louder.”

Reading Buddies range from 6 to 16 inches in height. They stay in the classroom during the school year, but students take them home for the summer, to promote summer reading.

As Allen opened the big blue bag filled with Reading Buddies, he produced a menagerie of poodles, frogs, owls, dinosaurs and pigs. Within moments, students became familiar with their new friends. Avery Villano already named his brown moose Cocoa. Ryker Damron described his pooch as “pretty snugly.”

Boyle, who has used Reading Buddies for several years, has seen improved reading comprehension scores. “The kids love them,” Boyle said. “They’re more excited to read.”