As 2019 draws to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the work we have accomplished over the past year at ParentChild+, a non-profit organization that builds school readiness by supporting parent-child interaction through reading, talking, and playing in the home. This year alone, our reach has grown to over 8,500 families who are furthest from opportunity, and that number continues to grow as we reach out to the many families who do not have access to school readiness supports before their children enter school.
What we do to help families prepare their children for school through reading and play is working. ParentChild+ graduates are more ready for kindergarten, are half as likely as their peers to need special education by third grade, and ultimately graduate high school at a 20% higher rate than low-income students nationally.
Behind these numbers are real children whose lives are meaningfully changed through the support we provide their families in preparing them for school. Their stories constantly remind me why we do this work.
When I first started at ParentChild+, I had young children who were the age of the participants who begin and graduate from our program: 2 and 5. My children were growing up surrounded by books and words, just as I had. Books and stories were a way to time travel, to visit places we would never physically get to, to focus on things we were fascinated by and passionate about — dinosaurs, firefighters, American history, or girl power, and to see the world from the perspective of people with lives very, very different from our own. I was incredibly lucky to grow up surrounded by books, stories, and words, and so were my children.
It was easy to explain to my children why I was doing this work with ParentChild+ — that there were too many children in this country who did not have any books. They didn’t have access to libraries, their families did not have money to buy books, and often they lived in places where there just were no books. It made complete sense to my children that I would go to work every day to make sure that every child had access to all the books they wanted just like they did.
While we always knew books and reading were important, it wasn’t until I began meeting the families participating in our program and hearing their stories that I gained an even fuller understanding of their true importance.
I met a woman named Carol and her son, Ben. Carol and her husband work hard to keep their children safe, fed, and housed. But they didn’t have books in their house before we started visiting with them, because they didn’t know that reading with your child builds and solidifies that critical caregiver-child bond — that it is warmth, love, support.
I was sitting in Carol’s home, watching as she, her son, and her home visitor read together. Midway through the visit, she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, before we had this opportunity to read together, before I knew how important this was, he wouldn’t sit still, now he sits with me and points at animals, calling out their names and their sounds with pride. I had no idea he could do this before he went to school, that he could be so smart, that he could know, do, or say so much at this age.
From reading with his parents, Ben now has the confidence, language, and knowledge to successfully navigate a classroom and the world. Carol now knows her child is walking into a classroom ready to succeed. She knows she plays a critical role in helping her children learn and succeed and has the confidence that she can continue to be a powerful force for good in her children’s lives.
Carol’s story and many others have stuck with me — every day.
The most important thing I have learned in 22 years of doing this work, is that all children must have access to books and must be read to. Reading and telling stories to a young child is not a luxury, it is a necessity. And parents or primary caregivers must have the time, support, and resources to read with their children.
Reading together is not just about exploring new worlds, times, and people — that is all lovely, but in fact books and reading together provide power and access in ways that I never really understood until I began to work with people who did not have them. That is why it is my job every day to make sure they do.
I share this story because I think it’s important for people to know the magnitude of change, we can accomplish through humble acts. Every day that I go to work, every day that we do something that seems so simple, introducing books and reading into a home, we are changing lives.