By Chuck Seaver, South Lake Tablet

We, at the South Lake Tablet, have found that our community is the home of people with blended backgrounds, possessing an assortment of talents, interests, and experiences. Many of these unique people go far beyond their normal, everyday routines to make life better for their families, neighbors, and friends.

Each month, the South Lake Tablet will place a  “spotlight” on one of these local residents who selflessly devote time and efforts to make a positive impact on his/her community.

This month’s community spotlight shines on Thom Battisto. Thom was born in Chicago, Illinois, where he lived before moving to Central Florida in 1998. Thom has always had a passion and a soft heart for animals, in particular, dogs. This passion eventually evolved into Thom’s not-for-profit organization, Read to Sydney. Read to Sydney was an idea born primarily by the encouragement of friends who interacted with Thom’s dog, Sydney. Sydney was an Australian Shephard/Chow Mix who spent the first four years of her life with a family who had a child confined to a wheelchair. After the owner developed allergies, Sydney was placed for adoption and became part of Thom’s family.

As Sydney adapted to her new surroundings and family, Thom and his friends realized that Sydney had something special when around children. She interacted well with them, and the children seemed to gravitate towards her. A friend, along with their child, was visiting Thom’s family one evening. The child had a habit of watching television as a constant hobby and this visit was no exception from that pattern. Thom suggested to the child that he read a book to Sydney as a change of pace. The child complied and began reading a children’s book to nearby Sydney. As Sydney cozied up to the little boy and appeared to be listening to him read, the idea was born. A therapy dog that could help children with reading difficulties break those barriers.

In 2011, the idea became a reality. Sydney would be the first of three dogs that have been Read to Sydney therapy dogs. “When a child reads to dogs, there is no judgment, only patience and quiet acceptance. Reading to therapy dogs helps elevate a child’s self-esteem; it also provides comfort, reinforces learning, motivates speech, and teaches positive and appropriate behavior in the children. It is important to bring awareness to families seeking literacy programs,” says Thom. The program is designed to help children with or without a reading disability, overcome the fear of reading. Thom himself is dyslexic so understanding the troubles of a child with a reading disability came with ease and compassion.


During the twelve years that Read to Sydney has been visiting area libraries, schools, and community events, it is estimated that there have been 15-20,000 interactions with children, either as a reading therapy session or just simply interacting with Sydney or one of her predecessors, in a kid-friendly way. During Sydney’s therapy career, she was also recognized as an ambassador with the South Lake Chamber of Commerce. It is believed that she was the first canine ambassador to a chamber of commerce in the United States.

 Sydney has since crossed the pet-world rainbow bridge, but her memory has continued through the efforts of Thom, canine Toby, who has recently retired, and his present canine companion, Sunny. Sunny is a husky mix who has wasted no time in becoming a well-known furry face in the South Lake and West Orange communities. Sunny has assisted in the placement of ten lending library boxes throughout the community. A project that is partnered with the Kiwanis Club of Clermont. The Read to Sydney organization has also gone mobile with a book-mobile vehicle that makes the distribution of books to children at pop-up libraries and other community events an easy task.

Read to Sydney has received numerous accolades over the years, including articles in Women’s World Magazine, Access Hollywood’s Everyday Hero series, Spectrum News-13’s Everyday Hero spotlight, just to mention a few. Sydney Finds a Job, a children’s book published in 2015, was listed as a #1 best seller on Amazon. The book remains available on Amazon, as well as in libraries not only locally but libraries in France, Italy, China, Mexico and Germany. It is noteworthy to mention that Read to Sydney is completely funded from public donations and out of Thom’s personal finances. Several area schools conduct annual book drives to assist with the Lending Library Box program. Although public donations have been down slightly since the Covid pandemic and rising inflation, Thom maintains his program schedule and is determined to continue forward with Read to Syndey’s mission of teaching children to read, one “tail” at a time.

Thom is also very active in the community through the Kiwanis Club of Clermont. He not only serves as the club’s secretary, but he participates in programs at the Building Blocks Ministries and DreamPlex organizations with special needs programs for adults. He recently led a fundraiser event that netted $7,000.00 for the Neighborhood Center of South Lake’s summer “Feed the Children program,” and coordinated a $1,700.00 grant for the Building Blocks Ministries’ kitchen at the new facility being constructed in Groveland. He also serves as the clubs Youth Services Advisor, a position that coordinates the area elementary school’s Terrific Kid programs. The club recently recognized Thom’s efforts with a presentation to him of the George E. Hixson Award. An award presented to members who go above and beyond in their community volunteer service.

Thom is a humble man who holds a big heart for the community, children’s reading assistance and the welfare of those around him.  

Visit for further details and donation opportunities.

Also visit Cooper Memorial Library ( and Winter Garden Branch | Orange County Library System ( for a full listing of Read to Sydney’s library visits.

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