If there’s barely enough money for a family to pay for the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, there’s not going to be much left over to purchase books. It’s a catch 22 since reading and other related literacies are linked to academic success and subsequent success in the work place—stepping stones out of poverty.
According to the Fall 2014 Race for Results report published by the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families, “30 percent of Wisconsin’s white children live in households below 200 percent of the poverty level. While nearly 80 percent of African-American children experience that level of economic insecurity.”
About two-thirds of Wisconsin’s Latino and American Indian kids also live in households below 200 percent of the poverty line. An additional report shows that African-American students fall significantly behind in reading by the 4th grade.
When Rowan Childs read these statistics, she didn’t just think someone should do something. Instead, Rowan founded the Madison Reading Project (MRP). The project began with a pilot program at the Salvation Army. Volunteers worked with children after school and during the summer, offering tutoring and story times. Rowan says, “We learned that the children who were participating in the program did not own books.”
Research strongly proves that book ownership and literacy experiences correlate to success in school, the workplace, and beyond. Book ownership enhances a child’s interest and pride in reading and leads to improved literacy skills overall.1
That and other research related to literacy development and book ownership encourages the staff and volunteers of MRP to remain committed to increasing the scope and quality of how they reach children and families. The MRP reach now extends beyond Madison to other areas in south central Wisconsin.
Although MRP no longer provides reading tutoring at the Salvation Army, they have established partnerships with over 60 agencies to provide books and literacy experiences to the area’s underserved children. In 2016, MRP gave away 10,134 books. In 2017, that number rose to 26,188. This year, MRP set a goal of distributing 30,000 books. The goal isn’t just about numbers, though. In addition to the quantity of books, MRP is striving for diversity in the books.
MRP relies heavily on book drives by other agencies or area businesses. “We’re grateful for every new and gently used book that we’re given,” says Rowan. “But children resonate the most with books that reflect their race and experiences. We don’t get those donated as much. We have to purchase books with ethnically diverse characters and experiences.”
In addition to grants and individual donations, MRP raises funds through events, like late winter’s READ(y) to Wear, the annual paper-inspired benefit fashion show where teams compete for “best-in-show” recognition. READ(y) to Wear brings together lovers of reading, fashion, and fun to see the paper creations of participating teams and, ultimately, to benefit MRP’s mission to provide books and literacy experiences for the children who need them the most.
Book giveaways are just one prong of what MRP offers. It also provides literacy experiences. In 2017, MRP conducted over 70 literacy programs. The 2018 goal is 100. The story times give children positive reading experiences, which, combined with take-home books, enhance literacy for entire families. This two-pronged approach allows MRP to have a unique community reach. Through book giveaway events and excellent literacy programs, they inspire a wide range of children to master the reading process.
MRP has been recognized by area educators, librarians, social workers, and community leaders as providing valuable, necessary, and high-quality opportunities for literacy promotion to children and families. Kayla Barnes-Patrick, a school social worker at Northside Elementary in Sun Prairie, speaks volumes in her praise for the organization. “Madison Reading Project has given our school an avenue to ensure our at-risk students have access to books they are excited about. Students are talking about their birthday book, and there is nothing better than sharing a high five when they’re finished. We are thankful for this gift that bridges reading between school and home.”
Because of their success, MRP continues to receive requests for programming and books. Carrie Cashtree, outreach and programs director, is the main point of contact for programming and book giveaways. Carrie started as a mentor in 2014 and joined the staff in 2015. She works to ensure that what type of books and services are needed are delivered. Carrie also helps oversee the book donation center.
Individuals can help the MRP reach more underserved children and families in a variety of ways. Monetary donations can be sent and information about book drives is available on the website.
1 Science X. phys.org/news/2015-06-summer-kids.html.
Deb Biechler is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Middleton Times Tribune. In addition, she teaches meditation and mindfulness practices to educators. She lives in Waterloo with her partner, Randy Hestekin, and dog, Jessie.
Madison Reading Project
8030 Excelsior Drive
Madison, WI 53717