Love can take many forms, whether it’s your partner of umpteen years or the beloved family cat who only curls up in your lap.
For more than 30 local leaders and celebrities, it will take the shape of a book as they read to children on Valentine’s Day in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Rolling Readers―a non-profit organization that promotes literacy among children. The leaders and celebrities will read aloud at 15 San Diego County elementary schools.
In Lemon Grove, City Council member Mary England will read at Golden Avenue Elementary School. England, a candidate for a seat in the new 79th Assembly district, will read “You’re All My Favorites” by Sam McBratney. It’s her first time with the Rolling Readers campaign, though she has participated in literacy programs before.
She says her own childhood was filled with a number of favorite books, and fondly recalls that her mother would read to her at bedtime.
“Children need to know that reading is an important part of life,” she told Lemon Grove Patch by email. “Not only is it exciting to read, reading provides knowledge, entertainment and allows us to ‘travel’ to different times and places through the written word.
“Through books children can travel to other countries, learn about diverse cultures and gain an understanding of how people throughout our great world live, laugh and survive.”
The story she will read Tuesday is about how a momma and poppa bear show their three baby bears that they are all their parents’ favorite.
Based on the principle that reading aloud promotes imagination and grade-level literacy, Rolling Readers volunteers visit schools in low-income communities every week throughout the academic year.
They also participate in book giveaways, where a child in their Read-Aloud program is given a brand-new book of their very own. Executive Director Susan Fiske-Koehler estimated around half a million books have been donated since the program’s inception in 1991, with 11,500 given to children living in poverty just last year.
“The reason this is really important is that … there’s only one book for every 300 children in the homes in low-income communities,” she said. “And so it’s the actual book ownership that becomes really important to these kids.”
Jane Hopkins, a 14-year volunteer who reads to four classes at Emerson/Bandini Elementary, said many of the older children still have the book they were given, and will ask her if she remembers it.
She said visiting the same children each week is what helps the program make a lasting impression. It also makes it fun.
“You get greeted so warmly every time you go,” she said. “… Kids will yell out, ‘Mrs. Hopkins is here! Mrs. Hopkins is here!’ ”
A former bilingual reading specialist at Emerson/Bandini Elementary, Hopkins spent her career helping children in kindergarten and first grade who were having trouble with literacy. When she retired, she said becoming a reading volunteer was a natural fit.
“I knew it was important, and it was easy to do,” said Hopkins, who later recruited her husband, Bruce. “We don’t purport to teach (children) to read, but to inspire them to love reading and have a love for books as well.”
She said they often read to their son when he was younger.
“He went on to UCLA and became a writer (at the LA Daily News),” Hopkins said. He currently works as a Los Angeles police officer, though he “still likes to write.”
Rolling Readers was formed when founder Robert Condon saw the positive effects of reading out loud to his children. He began visiting homeless shelters, reading to the children there and seeing similar responses.
After receiving recognition from a Dear Abby letter, hundreds of Rolling Readers chapters popped up across the U.S., though Fiske-Koehler said those chapters have since become independent organizations―a move that’s allowed Rolling Readers to return to its grassroots mission in San Diego County.
“Literacy is declining because of the large numbers of children living in poverty,” Fiske-Koehler said. “A lot of people don’t realize that 60 percent of our children in San Diego live in poverty.”
The reasons for the decline are numerous. In some cases, cultural differences prevent parents from becoming involved at their child’s school, as they believe it would be insulting to the teachers. Other parents are refugees who can’t read in their native language, much less English. Still others are financially unable to take time off from work off to visit their child’s classroom.
“It’s not because the parents don’t want to be there, it’s because the parents can’t be there,” Fiske-Koehler said.
The drop in the sale of picture books in favor of increasingly popular chapter books doesn’t help either.
Picture books, Fiske-Koehler said, allow for the development of critical thinking in a setting that is comfortable and manageable for the child. In Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, for example, illustrations are able to introduce the word “ultimatum” or the concept of a “neutral party.”
Whatever the reason, the effects are detrimental, and many children who can’t read at grade level by the fourth grade are predicted not to graduate from high school.
“If they don’t graduate from high school, the person is likely to not become self-supporting,” Fiske-Koehler said. “Sadly, they could become a part of the justice system,” where many aren’t literate enough to fill out a job application.
According to Fiske-Koehler, fourth grade is such a pivotal point in a child’s education that in some states, like Arizona, the percentage of illiterate children at that time is used to predict how many prison spaces will be needed in the future.
The Rolling Readers program costs $40 per child per year. Last year in San Diego County nearly 5,000 low-income children heard a book read aloud every week by a volunteer.
Fiske-Koehler said it’s the simple act of providing a child with a book, as well as them hearing the words out loud, that are proven to help children learn to read. Part of that is creating a positive experience for the child.
Hopkins agreed, saying that parents reported a peak in their child’s behavior after having a Rolling Readers volunteer in the classroom.
“(They were) more willing and interested in doing homework, and they asked to be read to,” she said.
Some sites include Valley Elementary in Poway, Herbert Ibarra Elementary School in San Diego, Ocean Knoll in Encinitas, Golden Avenue Elementary in Lemon Grove, and Solana Vista in Solana Beach.
Editor's Note: Patch is a sponsor of this event.