Dinner and a Book:
Portsmouth Combats Illiteracy
with Food for the Mind and Body
by Rachel Enrich and Susan Burton
Spaghetti dinners in recreation centers, volunteers reading to children in day care centers, adults learning to read for the first time, and teachers and child care providers meeting in neighborhood schools to share ideas - all are part of a new wave of literacy awareness in the City of Portsmouth, Virginia. The city has a literacy crusader in the person of Ned McCabe, founder and chair of Portsmouth Reads. Members of the group's planning committee meet monthly to discuss the mission of the organization and determine ways to recruit volunteers and additional community partners. Funding for this incredible effort has already come from the Portsmouth Community Foundation, Norfolk Foundation, Beazley Foundation,United Way Success by Six Program, Portsmouth General Hospital Foundation, civic organizations, and dozens of local businesses.
…an estimated thirty-
three percent of the adult
population of Portsmouth
is functionally illiterate ….
Portsmouth Reads was founded by McCabe in October 2002 to address the problems of school readiness and adult illiteracy in Portsmouth. At present, an estimated thirty-three percent of the adult population of Portsmouth is functionally illiterate, while twenty four percent of children enter school without the fundamental skills needed to learn to read. Mc- Cabe intends to reduce this number considerably over a ten-year period. Community awareness, programs in child care centers, and a partnership with the public library will provide books and information to families about the importance of reading to children from an early age.
McCabe feels that if one generation is educated about the importance of reading books, having books in the home, and regularly sharing books with children, then a lasting difference could be made in the city. For this reason, the organization has a ten-year plan with seven initiatives to reach everyone in the community who is involved in any way with literacy in families.
The Day Care Initiative began in 2003. Volunteers from local churches, the military community, and civic organizations visit day care facilities to share books with children. Spending two hours with the children each week, these volunteers are trained to present books more effectively through the Raising a Reader program. Piloted at two centers during the 2003-04 school year, the program has been expanded to an additional center; more centers are ready to be added as volunteers become available.
The energy and
excitement keep building
as more initiatives are
Portsmouth Public Library piloted the Family Reading Night Initiative with a grant awarded by Square One. Portsmouth Reads took over the program when grant funding ceased. Family Reading Night encourages parents of preschool children to share books with their families on a regular basis and to use the local library as a resource for books and other learning materials. The programs are presented in local child care facilities and recreation centers; up to twenty-five families are invited to participate. To encourage families to attend programs during the evening after work, spaghetti dinners are served before each session. This also gives parents a chance to interact with each other and the presenters before the program. After dinner, the parents and children separate. The parents participate in an interactive program led by Portsmouth Reads volunteers or library staff. This session includes a discussion of the different types of books available at the library for young children, as well as demonstrations of simple finger plays, rhymes, and songs that parents can do at home as part of "learning time" with their children. Meanwhile, the children are entertained with an art activity; sometimes, they watch a short video. Afterwards, everyone comes together for a family story time. This story time is designed to model ways in which parents can present books and other learning activities to their children. At the end of the program, each family receives a canvas tote bag for library visits, three paperback picture books, literature about reading to children and ways to make reading fun, and a coupon for an additional free book at their local Portsmouth Public Library branch.The other five initiatives of Portsmouth Reads are now underway:
- The Legislative Initiative, which works with Portsmouth City Council to enact better legislation for day care providers;
- The School Buddies Initiative, which seeks to facilitate dialogue between kindergarten teachers and preschool child care providers to ensure that children are getting the pre-reading skills they need to begin school;
- The Social Service Initiative, which fosters awareness of Portsmouth Reads within public agencies so that employees can refer people who need literacy assistance;
- The Adult Literacy Initiative, which provides eighty volunteers trained by the Tidewater Literacy Council to tutor adults with low literacy skills; and
- The Infant Initiative, which places one hundred literacy information packets a month at Maryview Hospital for newborns and their families.
Portsmouth Reads provides concerned organizations in the city with an opportunity to come together to solve a problem that has existed in Portsmouth for years. The energy and excitement keep building as more initiatives are implemented and more people in the child care and literacy communities become aware of the work already done by McCabe and his dedicated volunteers. Day care center directors who have heard about the Day Care Initiative and Family Reading Nights are contacting the library and McCabe to find out how to put these programs in place in their facilities. McCabe and his team hope to maintain the momentum of their program so that positive results continue to happen - a hope the rest of us share.
After the spaghetti dinner, the parents participate in an interactive program (previous), while the children are entertained separately (left and below). Afterwards, everyone comes together for a family story time.
Rachel Enrich is Librarian I and Susan Burton is Library Director at Portsmouth Public Library. They can be reached at (757) 393-8501.