A line of kindergartners streamed into the media center at Godfrey-Lee’s Early Childhood Center. There, spread across tables, was an array of new books: classic books; graphic novels; books with characters of all shapes, sizes, hues, and abilities; Spanish books; English books. Students eagerly thumbed through the pages.
“Spiderman!” shouted one boy, as classmates swarmed to see what he’d found.
Thanks to the year-old nonprofit ReadGR, every child in the school took home a book. As co-program director of ReadGR, Becca Walsh-Wolfe oversees these pop-up book distributions, where she tells students, “If you ever feel lonely, you always have a friend in a book.”
When: 1:30-3:30 p.m., Sunday, March 24
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Lemons to Lemonade
Walsh-Wolfe is passionate about getting quality books into the hands of children. She spent 10 years coordinating the Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) program for Grand Rapids Public Schools before the district eliminated the program due to lack of funding.
RIF has allowed students to choose age-appropriate books, free of charge, since its inception in 1966. From the mid-70s to 2012, 80 percent of national RIF funding came from a federal grant. Most book recipients were in schools and community centers where 50 percent or more of children receive free and reduced-price lunch.
In 2012, Congress and the Obama administration eliminated RIF funding.
“It obliterated RIF programs all over the country,” said Walsh-Wolfe. The RIF Literacy Network, of which ReadGR is a member, continues to provide support through data, research, digital tools and grants, but it’s no longer able to provide funding at the levels it once did.
Walsh-Wolfe, who has an education degree with a literacy emphasis and a master’s degree in urban education, said she was troubled by what she saw. When GRPS eliminated RIF, she took to social media to share her concerns. Within a day, funders stepped forward, and ReadGR was born.
Partnerships and Pop-Ups
Walsh-Wolfe teamed up with Sara Binkley-Tow, co-founder of the mom-to-mom support nonprofit MomsBloom, to build ReadGR. Binkley-Tow had the experience of building a nonprofit organization from the ground up. Walsh-Wolfe had the literacy background and RIF experience. The pair found an ally in Grand Rapids Metro Ministry, the program’s major funding source.
Partnerships have been key to ReadGR’s success: Churches have offered volunteer power; Fountain Street Church houses ReadGR’s office; businesses like Thrivent Financial, which sponsored the recent book distribution at the Early Childhood Center, have stepped forward with financial and volunteer support.
After one year of operation, ReadGR has provided more than 10,000 free books to more than 3,500 students in 10 elementary schools including charter schools and buildings in Kentwood, Godfrey-Lee, Wyoming, Godwin Heights, and Northview schools.
While a stocked bookshelf is a mainstay of many homes, one in three children in the United States has no books, according to Walsh-Wolfe. This is problematic, she said, because the number one indicator of future educational success is having books in the home: “It actually even supersedes the parents’ educational level.”
Besides educational success, there’s a social-emotional component to reading: empathy is a major focus embedded in curricula provided to teachers by ReadGR, and in their dialogue with students at each distribution.
“Literacy and reading help connect us to one another,” said Binkley-Tow.
But to reap the benefits of reading, kids have to enjoy reading. Understanding which books will pique children’s interest while being well-written, beautiful, and reflective of the children receiving the books is not easy.
“I really consider this my art,” said Walsh-Wolfe. “What sets us apart is our collection of books. That’s what I hear from teachers and principals…they’re the books that the kids want to read. They’re books where kids recognize themselves in the pages.”
Most important, they’re the books that get read: “I do whatever it takes — they may take ‘Captain Underpants,’ they may take ‘Walter the Farting Dog‘ — if that’s what gets them to read, awesome.”
“The care she takes in making these selections is incredible,” said Binkley-Tow. “When it doesn’t take a long time for a child to pick a book, you know you’ve done a good job.”
As ReadGR continues to grow, Binkley-Tow and Walsh-Wolfe are looking forward to what the future holds for the organization. They’re seeking partnerships to sponsor book distributions for specific schools, planning a graphic novel distribution at schools this spring, and raising funds and awareness through events such as an upcoming “paint your canvas” fundraiser.
And they’re hoping to expand their literacy services by offering reading-focused professional development in schools.
“There are a lot of places we want to go,” said Walsh-Wolfe. “We’re excited about the future and about what we have to offer.”