A future scientist reads about Neil Armstrong taking the first step on the moon. A child who has never seen the ocean reads about life on the rocky coast of Maine. Another child enters a fantasy world of dragons and wizards. In most classrooms and homes, this is normal fare. However, two-thirds of children living in poverty have no books at home. They go to bed without their favorite story being read. They have no book to call their own.
Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) wants to change that. More than 400,000 RIF volunteers across the United States read with children in urban and rural settings. They share stories in migrant camps, homeless shelters, and community centers as well as in libraries and schools. And they give kids the ultimate gift: a book of their own to take home.
RIF was founded in 1966 when Margaret McNamara was tutoring four young boys in the Washington, D.C. public schools. She saw how their faces lit up when she gave them used books to take home. Since then, RIF has distributed over 400 million books to 35 million children, which translates to a lot of scientists, writers, and doctors being inspired at an early age.
The Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, RIF program is now one of the five largest in the nation and over the past 29 years has distributed 460,000 books to 192,000 low-income children. This regional program began much in the same way as the national charge. In 1981, children in the Northside neighborhood of Pittsburgh gathered to listen to Marirose Radelet read books. When she asked the children to bring their favorite books to share, she soon realized the children did not have their own books. The small pool of volunteers eventually grew to 300 dedicated volunteers today.
“We get to know the children,” says Florri Ladov, executive director of Pittsburgh RIF. “Our volunteers will be out in a grocery store or out eating pancakes on Sunday and one of the children they have volunteered with will come up and give them a hug because they have encouraged them to read.”
Ladov and her volunteers understand the importance of reading to young children and talking about the stories they read. “Our power is with intertwining and layering the programs. Children in pre-school are visited by our StoryMobile in their daycares,” says Ladov. “Students who are in second and third grade are a part of Lunch Time.” This program brings together a student with a volunteer to share lunch and a book. After lunch, the two spend one-on-one time reading. Ladov says the volunteers come from all walks of life. “We have working folks who take their own lunch time to be with the students, and retirees, and stay at home mom and dads. It is a big commitment on their part,” she adds. These are just two of the programs run by Pittsburgh RIF. “Our power is to saturate and target a neighborhood and layer the programs we have. That way we touch children for many years,” says Ladov.
Like many other worthwhile programs, RIF has not been immune to cutbacks in government funding in recent years. In March, 2011, RIF lost its annual federal funding of almost $25 million – or 80 percent of its operating budget. This was the second largest cut among high-profile education programs affected by Congressional action. “Simply put, this loss has a dramatic effect on our ability to get books to kids in need,” says Jay Brown, Director of Integrated Marketing for Reading Is Fundamental. “For the first time in decades, many children are going back to school this fall without RIF books to look forward to.”
Fortunately, RIF has found a partner who also sees the importance of its mission. Since 2004, Macy’s has helped raise over $25.8 million for RIF. That money not only has gone to promote books but also to provide free resources for parents and teachers. Macy’s has demonstrated its commitment to funding literacy for future generations through customer-supported campaigns, in-store events, and volunteer activities supported by donated employee time. The company also launched a campaign called Be Book Smart. Customers at Macy’s buy a $3 coupon and get $10.00 off. Macy’s donates 100 percent of the $3 to RIF. “This program raised more than $4.8 million for RIF. That will help provide 1.6 million books for children in need this year,” says Brown.
One of RIF’s primary goals has always been to prepare low-income kids for a productive future. Toward that end, RIF started a multi-year campaign focusing on the intersection of early childhood education and science, technology, engineering, arts and math. “We are entering a new era where technology, engineering and science are going to play critical roles in global economy,” says Brown. “This campaign is about harnessing a child’s natural curiosity at the youngest age so that we can encourage a passion for skills in reading and STEAM subjects that will ultimately pave the way for success in school and life.”
The natural curiosity Brown speaks of harnessing is the same curiosity that McNamara saw in her four young students in 1966 and Radelet saw in the young children who gathered with her to read. The same curiosity is nourished today by the thousands of RIF volunteers working in migrant camps and public schools, the natural curiosity that makes a child fill with excitement when they realize the book they have been given is truly their own. RIF has provided smiles to millions of such children for decades. And as long as there are volunteers with willing hearts, books that open the world, and children who can’t wait to turn their pages, RIF will continue to give kids the ultimate gift: a book of their own.
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Diane Silcox-Jarrett is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Contact Diane.