- February 10, 2016
Read to Sydney is kicking off 2020 with a new chapter and expanded vision.
The nonprofit, founded in 2011, allows children to read to therapy dogs in a safe and encouraging environment. It all began with founder and president Thomas Battisto’s dog, Sydney, an Australian shepherd and chow mix, who became a registered therapy dog.
Battisto always had a vision for helping special-needs children or those with learning disabilities who struggle to read. He himself has struggled with dyslexia his whole life.
Today, Read to Sydney holds monthly library visits and school visits to give children the chance to interact with therapy dogs while reading or listening to a story. Therapy dog Toby and Bailey, a therapy dog in training, are continuing Sydney’s legacy.
For the past few years, the nonprofit has operated a physical location called Sydney’s Reading and Learning Center in Ocoee’s West Oaks Mall. Recently, Battisto had to make a tough decision to close the center. He said the decision came after realizing the increasing demand for the therapy dogs to make school and library visits far outpaced the reading center’s use.
“People aren’t going in, they’re not utilizing the space — it was costing us a lot (of) money to keep that space open,” Battisto said. “When people aren’t coming in and Toby and I are just sitting there — telling schools and libraries, ‘Sorry, we can’t come because we have mall that day’ — we could’ve been at the school and the library.”
After Battisto realized it was no longer feasible to sustain both the visits and the physical location, Sydney’s Reading and Learning Center shut down in mid-January. However, it signifies turning the page to a brand-new chapter.
By closing the store and focusing efforts on visits to schools, libraries and nursing homes, Battisto said Read to Sydney will be able to serve more people. He also hopes to bring the nonprofit’s goal of purchasing a bookmobile to life this year.
A bookmobile, he said, would make increasing the number of school and library visits more manageable and allow the nonprofit to transport more books.
“I think we can reach more people with the bookmobile than the reading center,” he said. “We’ve been thinking about it for three years. It’s just kind of hard to do when you’re going to schools, libraries and the mall. Now that we’re out of the mall, I can concentrate on doing this.
Battisto said Read to Sydney is working with a grant writer in the hope of obtaining grants to fund the bookmobile. He envisions it as a cargo van or small bus that could potentially hold small shelves with books and even some bean bags.
The nonprofit now has more time to focus on fundraising efforts for the bookmobile. Battisto said he hopes Read to Sydney can get the bookmobile by this summer or early 2021.
It’s a bittersweet goodbye to the reading center for Battisto, but the thought of being able to help more children build their confidence and reading skills is one that makes moving forward worth it.
“Of course I was sad, I mean, we were at the mall for five years but … a lot of people are really excited about the bookmobile,” he said. “It seems there’s more excitement around us than we had when we were at the mall. There’s a lot of things on the horizon that we can do. We just have to get the van.”