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Two young girls reading a children's book together

What Virginia nonprofits are doing to support children’s literacy

For those Millennial readers out there, let’s take you back to the Scholastic Book Fair days. Do you remember how enthralling it was to walk into the library, with those foldable silver bookshelves on wheels lined with books from The Babysitter Club and Goosebumps series, replete with all the tchotchkes you could dream of? That feeling of excitement and ownership when you got to pick something out was a childhood highlight.

The reality, however, is that not every child gets to experience that joy.

Early childhood education scholars and advocates know that childhood literacy starts well before a student enters the K-12 system, and that early literacy work helps form the foundation for lifelong learning, comprehension and growth.

There are several nonprofits and community partners that see the importance of supporting literacy early. The United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg, for example, has nine Steps for Success and two of them are focused on literacy under the age of 10.

“United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg believes every child deserves the opportunity to succeed in school, and that begins with early literacy,” said Audrey Trussell, vice president of Community Impact at United Way GRP. “For low-income children, literacy is one of the keys to upward mobility. Kids who are reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to graduate high school on time. Unfortunately, one in four students is not reading proficiently by third grade.”

The United Way branch hosts Kindergarten Countdown Camps to help students begin elementary school ready to succeed,  distributes thousands of United Way Literacy Kits to schools and invests nearly $1.5 million in 12 local programs focused on kindergarten readiness and third grade reading.

And don’t let all this literacy and learning make you think this isn’t fun. As the antithesis of the AR Points system that ruined my love of reading (don’t worry, I got it back), the folks over at the Children’s Museum of Richmond are experts at play and through its Children’s Book Bank, it helps to replicate some of that Scholastic Book Fair joy – even during a pandemic.

“The Children’s Book Bank came to the museum in 2013, and basically we have donations of books from our community that are new or like-new,” said Danielle Ripperton, executive director of the Children’s Museum of Richmond. “Kids from low-income families and Title I schools can pick a book to add to their home library. This is extraordinarily important – that ownership and pride.”

During the first year of the pandemic, around 25,000 books were distributed across Central Virginia through CMoR’s program. The museum’s book bank seeks to be diverse, inclusive and representative of the populations served in our region, which means in addition to the animals, cars and cartoon characters represented, there are books that feature families of color, families beyond a nuclear representation and experiences from different cultures. The museum has an active partnership with Sacred Heart Center to ensure Latino children, in particular, are equitably represented and served in this space.

So, why is this all so important again? There’s not just a foundational cognitive development at play, but an imagination and knowledge base that grows by the page.

“When children read, they develop larger vocabularies and perform better academically. Cognitive development and concentration levels advance. Creativity comes alive,” Trussell adds. “A story can take a child to meet people, see places and experience events that they couldn’t meet or learn about otherwise. This provides a child with the opportunity for a wider understanding of our community and our world.”

To support childhood literacy in our region, considering connecting with United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg, Sacred Heart Center or Children’s Museum of Richmond.

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