It all starts with that first book: One Columbus group is on a mission to make First Book a household name in the battle against illiteracy

October 12, 2013 11:32:41 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


A troop of zany aliens is headed to Earth, but not to take over the planet, oh no. They're just out to steal underwear -- from woolly long johns to pink frillies. And what do you call a grandpa who drags his grandson to a monster truck show in the middle of a tornado? Awesome, that's what. Or maybe a story about sixth-graders who develop and sell toothpaste to become millionaires is more to your liking. It's filled with real-life mathematical problems the characters must solve to succeed in their budding business.  


"Aliens Love Underpants" by Claire Freedman, "Wiley & Grampa's Creature Features: Dracula vs. Grampa" by Kirk Scroggs, and Jean Merrill's "Toothpaste Millionaire" are just a sampling of stories that spark the imaginations of children like Marquis Andrews, Kaitlyn Taylor Smith and her sister Blake. The Fairview Aerospace and Science Magnet School students really like to read. Thanks, in part, to First Book of Lowndes County -- a program that provides brand new books to children to take home so they can build their very own libraries. 


In advance of its fall fundraising effort, the nonprofit organization's advisory board is on a mission to make First Book a household name, and to involve everyone in some facet of improving literacy.  


"We are passionate about developing the interest for reading in early childhood," said First Book advisory board member Qua Austin, a former board president. The group chartered in 2005 is a hard-working one. "They really roll up their sleeves, working as ambassadors distributing books and reading with children at schools and child care centers and programs like HEARTS After-School Tutoring." First Book addresses the single biggest barrier to developing literacy -- access to books.  




The grants 


First Book's national network has distributed to date more than 100 million books through local advisory boards. The Lowndes County 501(c)(3) nonprofit board awards book grants to eligible programs in child care and tutoring/mentoring centers and schools that serve a designated percentage of children from lower-income households.  


A typical grant lasts six months and offers each child in the grantee program a steady diet of books (usually one per month). Program administrators can choose Newbery and Caldecott award winners and other high-quality children's titles from the First Book Marketplace online bookstore at 50 to 90 percent off retail. Selections teachers can integrate into school curriculum are plentiful. 


Gail Boland is the current advisory board president. "This is the most brilliantly planned nonprofit I've ever been associated with. We all know the value of reading and how it can change lives. It's a win-win for our community. And for every dollar donated, we probably bring in four or five more by way of books."  


Book distributions are special occasions. Each book comes with a personalized label inside with students' names. 


"The children feel such pride; it's ownership," said Hazel Randall, Golden Triangle director for ICS (Institute of Community Services)/Headstart, where about 260 children at Coleman Headstart receive books. For some children, Randall added, it may truly be the first book they've ever had of their very own. It could even be the first book in the home. 




At issue 


The social fallout from illiteracy affects us all. Children who struggle are more likely to become drop-outs, will earn barely enough to stay above poverty levels and will be more likely to engage in criminal and anti-social behavior. First Book's website tells us that, during their lifetimes, they can cost the United States more than a quarter of a million dollars each, in welfare, social services programs and unemployment compensation. 


In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a large scale assessment of adult proficiency that revealed at least 15 percent of adults in Mississippi were found to be illiterate. Rates soared as high as 30 percent in some of the most impoverished and rural counties, according to an article in The Hechinger Report in March. Nationwide, 14 percent of adults were not able to read or write basic words--a figure that has held steady since the early 1990s. 




Modeling success 


The First Book advisory board, chartered in 2005, points to measurable results at Fairview School, which saw its reading proficiency level improve from a D to a C in the last MCT2 (Mississippi curriculum test). This is Fairview's third year to be a First Book grantee. Mildred Ford is the school's curriculum coordinator. 


"The first year we targeted first grade students (to receive books) who were beginning to learn how to read. In the second year, we focused on students who were not doing as well as they were expected to and as required by our curriculum. As a result, we were able to move up one proficiency level," Ford explained. 


This year, a First Book grant will provide five books for each of the 290 children at Fairview. 


"We are so happy to be able to give books to every student," said Austin with enthusiasm. "We get excited when we have money to buy books."  




It's personal 


Lillian Evans operates Evans Christian Child Care Center, one of First Book's grantees. Her own granddaughter, Kelcey Kyles, loved the books she received when she attended the center. Now 6 and going to Stokes Beard Technology and Communication Magnet School, Kelcey very recently earned a certificate for "most books read." 


"I'm just so thankful to be a recipient of First Book," said Evans. "The books are a blessing, and when readers like Mother Goose and Mr. Glenn (Lautzenhiser) come and read to the children, they love it. I just hope and pray the program continues because some children's parents really can't afford to buy books." 


The task ahead is clear. "With the emphasis of Common Core standards on increased reading skills, it's essential that students have books in their hands and be read to if we're going to measure up," said Columbus Municipal School District Interim Superintendent Edna McGill. "Our kids are going to have to be strong readers." 




How to help 


The local First Book program is supported by grants from corporations such as Weyerhaeuser, clubs like the Exchange Club and Kiwanis, churches, and donors like you and me.  


"Any amount helps, no matter how large or small: even $25 buys 10 books," said Austin.  


Volunteers are needed as well, to read and help with book distributions. Even an hour of time can be put to good use. Contributions can be made to First Book at P.O. Box 1265, Columbus, MS 39703, or make an online donation designated for Lowndes County at For more information, email [email protected] or contact Boland at 662-889-8771. 


A speakers' bureau stands ready to visit any organization, business or club. The goal is to get the word out because there is work to be done: There are new generations of lifelong readers and achievers to help inspire.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.