Kids need books

Illinois Kiwanis club works with local literacy foundation to strengthen childhood education.

By Maria Hayley
Member of the Kiwanis Club of Lake View, Chicago
President of the Freadom Road Foundation

“The accident of birth is the greatest source of inequality in America today.” 

Those are the chilling words of James Heckman, Nobel Prize-winning economist of the University of Chicago. But in the Kiwanis Club of Lake View, Chicago, we’re working with The Freadom® Road Foundation to change things. 

Our partnership’s work is based on two programs: Young Children: Priority One, a Kiwanis program that focuses on children from the prenatal stage to age 5, and Read Around the World, a past Kiwanis program that shares the joy of books with young children by reading to them and providing them with books. (Many Kiwanis clubs still conduct Read Around the World programs.)

Each of these programs promotes reading as a foundation for success in school and in life — and a way out of academic failure and its role in the vicious cycle of intergenerational incarceration. 

When the “accident of birth” includes being born to people in prison, a child lives even closer to the source of social inequality. A disproportionate number of such parents are racial minorities, young people and parents of very young children. 

The areas into which these children are born, according to reports, suffer from extreme sociological-economic disadvantages — including weak or negative job growth, high unemployment, high poverty, low median incomes and low education levels.

But studies also indicate one way to elevate low education levels: early development. That means helping children prepare for school from the time they’re born and supporting students struggling with low reading scores before the end of third grade. 

But for families in high-poverty areas, relevant programs and resources are scarce — or not there at all. 

Each of our club’s reading programs puts these resources in where they are missing, with appropriate adaptations for age and personal preferences,

Our work is serious business — rooted in years of research, experience and training in multiple disciplines — but we make it fun, personal and interactive for the families. 

In each program, everything begins with “Getting to Know You.” This means the whole family — their hobbies and pets, their interests and concerns. In fact, everything is customized. Materials are attractively packaged and presented, and they cover a wide range of topics and activities — including book-character dolls, games, puzzles and art. Incentives and prizes are a big part of the program. 

And because all the materials are new, they send a message that the children and families are worth the investment. 

We also connect education and economics by encouraging parents and caregivers to take their young readers to local libraries. In fact, we took families on a trip to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library Center, with its majestically high, green-stone roof, its marble floors and its glorious winter garden. In the summer, we encourage families to get connected with The Chicago Public Library’s Summer Learning Challenge, which offers exciting programs and prizes to stop the dreaded summer reading slump. 

We even hold contests to help create a literacy-rich home environment. Contest winners are celebrated in person, via Zoom, in the Family Focus Newsletter and the Facebook pages of The Freadom Road® Foundation and the Kiwanis Club of Lake View. 

All who participate are applauded as winners — for the effort and talent they invested to raise their children’s education levels and . 

Here are a few of our proudest success stories:

Escape from the Jeopardy Zone. This program is the legacy of longtime Kiwanian and Logan Square Boys & Girls Club Director John Stephan, who dedicated his life to help kids struggling with poverty and violence. Stephan collaborated on the program with The Freadom Road Foundation, seeking to reverse the course of third graders falling below proficiency in national reading scores. Now in partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, Logan Square Club at Funston Elementary School is known as the Legacy Club in his honor. 

Trey’s Boys Book Club. Trey J, who had been in a “jeopardy zone” in the third grade, was bringing home report cards with only Ds and Fs. After he and his family participated in our home-visiting program, Trey’s reading improved, and his grades jumped to As and Bs. He then turned reading to leading by recruiting friends to join his home-based book club. 

Monique M., our parent representative advisor. A member of one of the original Freadom® Families, Monique joined our program while she was homeless and living in a shelter with her 4-month-old daughter. Even after moving to Indiana and having other children, she kept requesting books — and now we send them by mail. Monique was eventually offered a job at her children’s day care because the supervisors there were so impressed by how well she had taught her own children. 

Both Monique and Trey were presented with our Rising Star Award. 

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