January 5th, 2007 18:03 EST
Nonprofit Group Promotes Literacy by Book Distribution to Kids
Washington -- Over a period of 40 years, the largest nonprofit children`s literacy organization in the United States has been introducing youngsters in disadvantaged communities to the joys of reading, and transforming lives in the process.
Founded in 1966, Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) aims to reach underprivileged children from birth to age 8 through a series of literacy-promotion activities, beginning with its book distribution program. According to Stephen Leach, RIF`s director of government relations and community outreach, the organization provides 4.5 million children with free books and other literacy resources each year. RIF programs currently operate in all 50 U.S. states and in the U.S. territories of Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Leach told USINFO that RIF`s top goal is to get children excited about books. " In fact, the RIF Web site states that all RIF programs combine three essential elements to foster children`s literacy: reading motivation, family and community involvement, and the excitement of choosing free books to keep. "
Several times a year, RIF distributes new books to children -- usually through a bookmobile " van that travels to participating schools and other sites -- while local RIF coordinators organize the book distribution events and oversee the efforts of other RIF volunteers. Our objective is to make these events fun for the kids, " said Leach. At the end [of each event], kids choose their books. "
Because RIF is a well-known presence in the communities it serves, the organization never has had trouble attracting volunteers, Leach said. Many volunteers benefited from RIF programs when they were growing up, so they are enthusiastic about enriching young lives through the gift of literacy, he added. Volunteers are up for renewal each year, " and they frequently re-enlist, said Leach.
RIF has established partnerships with the U.S. Department of Education, and with corporate sponsors and private donors as well, so its reach is considerable. The U.S. Congress provides federal matching funds to sites -- such as schools and child care facilities -- that qualify for RIF`s national book distribution program, and those funds are disbursed through the Department of Education.
RIF gets $30 million each year in funding, 85 percent of which is from the federal government, " said Leach. About 90 percent of our budget goes directly to providing books and literacy resources to individual RIF programs " throughout the United States and its territories.
Yet even federal funding, corporate sponsorship, and private donations do not enable RIF to help every community that needs its services. Right now, we do have a waiting list of a million or so kids that we unfortunately don`t have the resources to serve, " said Leach. There is a need, an overwhelming need. "
RIF coordinators work with a book selection committee to select the book vendor to purchase from, and then select from the titles available from that vendor, " he said. Local coordinators have a lot of flexibility in determining which titles are most appropriate for the kids in their communities. " And vendors sell books at a significant discount to RIF programs, " he added.
The organization`s success in the United States has spawned similar efforts in other countries. The organization is affiliated with programs in Argentina and the United Kingdom, said Leach, and we have a great relationship with those programs. We bounce ideas off each other and share best practices. We try to keep in contact with them as often as we can. They do share our name, but they operate independently from us. "
But perhaps the most gratifying tribute of all is the evidence that RIF has made a real difference to the children it serves. Leach said RIF officials receive a steady stream of letters from kids, parents, caregivers, and [program] coordinators " who developed a love of reading " thanks to RIF activities. Children`s reading scores have improved, and their attitude toward reading has improved, " he said. Early exposure to books through RIF can improve academic performance later on. "
Leach himself is a RIF alumni, " having grown up in a small town in North Carolina that profited from RIF`s book distribution program. We had RIF events in school, " he recalled. I remember sharing RIF books with my younger brother. " Several other RIF staffers also have fond memories of their childhood RIF experiences, he said.
Among the many inspirational examples of RIF kids " who went on to achieve their dreams are Juwan Howard, a star athlete with the National Basketball Association`s Houston Rockets, and television producer Hank Mendheim, who works for the National Broadcasting Company.
Writer/poet/activist Tanzania Nevels, a native of the Delta region of Mississippi, described how RIF changed her life in a posting on RIF`s Web site. I was in the RIF program " while attending primary school, she wrote. As a child, reading took me way beyond the boundaries of Mississippi. This introduced me to all the possibilities of what I could be when I grew up. " But without reading, I wouldn`t have known that all those prospects were out there. "
Leach said, stories like those of Nevels are what motivates us " to continue reaching out to children.
More information about RIF and its programs is available on the organization`s Web site.
See also U.S. Nonprofit Group Is `Nation`s Voice on Mental Illness`, " America`s Second Harvest Feeds Millions of Hungry People " and League of Women Voters Educates the American Electorate. "
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
By Lauren Monsen
USINFO Staff Writer