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Thirteen-year-old Elliot Lake reading whiz launches BookBuds for kids

Online reading mentorship program named Sault Ste. Marie Pitch competition winner
At just 13, Emlyn Goulding has launched her first business. BookBuds is an online reading service that helps mentor children who struggle with literacy. (Supplied photo)

The arrival of COVID-19 in March brought a lot of changes into Emlyn Goulding’s life.

School was suspended, and then moved online. Her ski race season was cut short early as events were cancelled. She also had to stop babysitting, a pastime she enjoyed that allowed her to earn a bit of spending money.

But it wasn’t all bad.

It was also during the pandemic that Goulding became a first-time entrepreneur.

At just 13 years old, Goulding is the prize-winning founder and facilitator of BookBuds, an online reading service that helps children improve their literacy skills.

“I was going to start my own teaching-English business, but a family friend just suggested, why don’t you read to kids, which I thought was a great idea,” said Goulding, a Grade 8 student who lives with her family in Elliot Lake.

“I love to read and it also included kids, so it was like my perfect combination.”

BookBuds takes its premise from similarly named programs that pair younger children with teens who sit and read with them.

In keeping with the COVID-19 era, Goulding’s new business brings the reading buddy system online, with Goulding mentoring her young clients virtually to assist with comprehension, pronunciation, and other literacy challenges.

Goulding offers bundles of half-hour and hour-long sessions, in which she reads to her young clients, along the way guiding them in activities – looking for certain words in the book, or listening for words that rhyme – that strengthen their aptitude.

“Kids feel better when they don’t have to read right away, because that’s kind of a scary thing,” she said.

Goulding knows of what she speaks.

Growing up, she has been both the recipient and the provider of mentoring through a book buddy program, and today she’s an avid reader with 250 titles in her collection.

“Being the younger kid, you think the older kid’s just interested in you, and you think this is just something you have in common,” she said of the experience.

“So it makes you feel good as a younger kid to have someone older interested in your education.”

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Clients can choose a book from Goulding’s collection or one of their own, which she will purchase, but in all cases, she encourages clients to have a paper copy in front of them to make it easier to follow along.

“For kids who are really struggling, I would recommend twice a week, just because they need to have an immersive experience as much as possible to catch up,” she said. “But if you’re just looking for your kid to have practice, and they’re not struggling a lot, it’s completely up to you.”

As she’s currently in school, Goulding runs her reading sessions in the evenings and for a few hours on Saturdays. Her dad, Bill, retains ownership of the business for legal reasons.

Despite her young age, this isn’t Goulding’s first brush with entrepreneurialism.

Two years ago, an 11-year-old Goulding was accepted into the Startup School at Y Combinator, a seed startup accelerator based in Mountain View, Calif.

Her idea was an online portal where musicians and writers could post their content for viewer-generated feedback.

Though her experience with the Startup School was a success, she eventually abandoned the idea when she learned that multi-million-dollar Wattpad already offered a similar service.

“I didn’t follow through with the business just because of how ambitious it is,” Goulding said. “It was kind of going against Wattpad, which was this big company when you’re 11.”

Goulding scored a new chance to make an impression on Oct. 22 as the winner of the 2020 Pitch competition hosted by the Millworks Centre for Entrepreneurship in Sault Ste. Marie.

The virtual event attracted more than 100 viewers, during which Emlyn and Bill pitched their proposal to a panel of judges and fielded questions about their business case.

“To be honest, we entered the competition so we could have the experience, but we didn’t actually think we were going to win,” Goulding said.

Their successful proposal landed them $17,000 in prize money, which will go toward a new desktop computer, a teleprompter, and a webcam to improve session quality, along with marketing and advertising for the business.

To date, Goulding has already signed up a handful of clients, most of whom are teachers who see the value in having a mentor help their children improve their reading skills.

She’s hopeful this will be a long-term endeavour, but cautions it would be premature to assume this will lead to a career in teaching.

“I’m actually drifting toward the entrepreneurial area,” Goulding said, “just because it’s a way to change the world that’s actually attainable.”