Nine-year-old Callie walked around the lobby of the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts Thursday, Aug. 16, with her nose in a picture book. She was waiting for the start of the last summer film festival series film, “Wonder.” But Callie also wanted to donate the book to Read2Me; she just wanted to read it first. Brittney Lofthouse, a Read2Me board member, said children’s enthusiasm for reading is a main goal of the literacy community in Macon County.
Lofthouse became involved in promoting literacy through Read2Me after attending an initial planning meeting six years ago. As a native of Western North Carolina and a Western Carolina University graduate in English, Lofthouse recognized literacy issues in the rural and often economically distressed region. “When there is a choice of putting meat on the table or a book in a child’s hands, food wins out,” she said.
With the mantra “reading matters in Macon County,” Read2Me has a three-prong goal that includes: 1) accepting donations of books and getting books in the hands of children and partnering with The Literacy Council to promote and support Dolly Parton Imagination Library; 2) parent education – teaching parents how to raise a reader; and 3) community awareness of the importance of reading through the Story Walk initiative.
Annually, a parent training conference (this year scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 22, at the Macon County Public Library from 10 a.m.-noon) teaches how to raise readers. This year’s theme, “Hometown Heroes,” puts the spotlight on police officers, firefighters, and rescue personnel. While parents are provided supplies and instruction, children participate in hands-on activities, enjoy snacks, and interact with fire trucks, police cars, etc.
Read2Me also partners with the Macon County Public Library to keep the 10 Macon County “little libraries” – the free library boxes in glassed cases – stocked with donated children’s books. Anyone can take a book from the free library. Replacement books are encouraged.
Lofthouse says Story Walk is near and dear to her because she brought it to the Read2Me board after seeing it while on a vacation. Basically, a book is represented in large weather-resistant placards and positioned in order of pages along a pathway traversed by families. Story Walk books are on the Little Tennessee River Greenway by the dog park and the Rotary Centennial Loop; at Parker Meadows Complex; at The Bascom: A Center for Visual Arts; and, most recently at Cowee School Arts & Heritage Center. In fact, local authors Claire Suminski and Jerome Suminski’s book, “Cowee Sam,” is featured at Cowee School. Another in the “Cowee Sam” book series will be on display sometime in early spring 2019 at Franklin Memorial Park. Lofthouse says the goal is to choose interactive books that focus on nature or some environmental element, and there is an interest in spotlighting local authors when possible.
Lofthouse said Read2Me and The Literacy Council want to elevate young children’s confidence regarding books and reading. As evidenced by pre-kindergarten assessment testing, many children in Macon County enter kindergarten without an understanding of even the basics: how to hold a book, turn a page, or follow words in a sentence from left to right.
“We wanted to improve their readiness score. And their scores have improved by about 30 percent on the assessment test for proficiency. We can’t say for certain if it is because of local literacy efforts, but we hope so.”
The Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which both Read2Me and The Literacy Council promote and support, mails age-appropriate books once a month – from birth to five years – to all registered children. The books are mailed to the child at no cost to the families. The goal is for the child to amass his or her own children’s book library and to become enamored with the idea of reading by the time kindergarten begins.
Founded in 1995, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library was first a program that involved books distributed to children living in Sevier County, Tenn., where Parton grew up. The program went global in 2006; and, in February of this year, the program reached 100 million as the total number of books given away so far. About a million books total are given away monthly.
According to The Literacy Council’s executive director, Bonnie Potts, the Dolly Parton Imagination Library provides the infrastructure for the program, meaning the coordination of book selections and wholesale purchasing, while The Literary Council and Read2Me together pays $30 per child annually for each of the approximately 1,000 children participating in the Imagination Library.
Lofthouse explained that all children receive “The Little Engine That Could” as their first book. Along the way, they may be mailed such titles as “Where’s My Nose?” “ABCers,” “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” and “Owl Moon.”
Lofthouse says that her son has an Imagination Library. When he turned five in May he received his last book. His sister was born in June and received her first book.
Potts, also a native of Western North Carolina, has always known she would work for a non-profit organization. She has been overseeing The Literacy Council for a year, but worked previously for a nonprofit in Vietnam and then for The Bascom. Her sister, Margie Potts, is a kindergarten teacher in Highlands, so Bonnie said she enjoys promoting literacy in her sister’s class as well as at many schools in Macon County.
The Literacy Council has a facility in Highlands that offers individual tutoring, reading, and class rooms. Programs offered free-of-charge include after school enrichment for grades K-5, in-school tutoring for grades K-3, Homework Helpers for grades 6-12, and individual tutoring for grades K-12. The Dog Reading Program is part of after-school enrichment.
“I like to read when ‘Ben’ the dog comes to see us and we read to him,” said Hudson Tilley, an elementary school student. Potts says for children too shy to read out loud to adults or peers, they gain confidence when reading to a dog. Also in elementary school is Lucy de la Cruz, who says of The Literacy Council’s student activities, “It is fun when we have activities after we do our homework. I like the art projects and yoga.”
Anywhere from 15-30 students are involved in student programs, while about 10 adults are assisted in the Adult Literacy program. Plus, there is high school equivalency (GED) and English as a second language (ESL) offered on Thursday evenings at the facility in Highlands, during which dinner and childcare are available.
“There are many who are unable to read and write,” said Potts, “but there is such a stigma attached to getting help.”
She adds that volunteers, coordinated by Tonya Anderson, program and volunteer manager, are well trained and gentle in their approach to tutoring and assisting.
The Literacy Council also offers STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)-focused summer camps that provide arts and crafts, music, games, and more. Three camp time periods involve around 100 children annually.
And, like Read2Me, the goal – always – is to encourage reading. Free books are given away during the Highlands Halloween event as well as the town’s Christmas parade. Potts says that besides what happens through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, more than 1,000 books are distributed throughout each year.
Both women encourage Macon County residents to get involved. The Literacy Council and Read2Me are always in need of volunteers and donations.