Once upon a time, a retired attorney named Pat Simons organized a group of girlfriends to start reading books to young children at various early childhood centers in St. Louis. The idea came about after conversations with her pediatrician-husband, Paul, who had noticed a troubling trend among many of his patients.

“He would tell her that many of the children had not seen a book or been read to—they were going to kindergarten so far behind their peers,” said Lisa Greening, executive director of Ready Readers, which was borne out of Simons’ idea of a volunteer-based reading program. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger. By 2007, Pat was serving 6,000 kids, while working out of her home. So she got more volunteers and got a warehouse to put the books.”

Today, Ready Readers has 500 trained “readers” who serve 10,000 children in more than 200 early childhood centers throughout St. Louis.

photo by A Spoonful of Sugar

“Our vision is that every child in the community enters kindergarten with a strong literacy foundation to become successful readers,” Greening said. “Only 30 percent of children in third grade are at or above third-grade reading proficiency. How did that happen? What are the factors?”

A recent national study (Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation) substantiates the link between third-grade reading scores and high school graduation. It also shows, for the first time, how the likelihood of receiving a high school diploma is affected by different reading skill levels and by poverty.

“With that in mind, do you prepare children for kindergarten? And how can we galvanize the community to do something about it?” Greening stated.

photo by A Spoonful of Sugar

The organization’s approach and its successful outcomes rely on its volunteer readers, who are each assigned to the same classroom for a year. The readers go through training, and are offered continuing education and monthly workshops, with topics ranging from how to refocus children to cultural competency.

“They read high-quality children’s literature and sing songs with them. For 30 minutes each week, the children have a consistent adult who also offers support to the teacher and the families,” Greening said, noting that every few weeks, students are given their own copy of a book, complete with personalization. “For some of these kids, they’ve never been called by their given name or seen their name written out.”

Ready Readers also provides literacy-themed field trips to places such as Powell Hall, which recently hosted an event inspired by the book, “The Lion and the Mouse.”

photo by A Spoonful of Sugar

“We had 12 musicians from the symphony who wrote a piece based on it, and they put this whole performance together with two COCA dancers and a reader, with the book on the big screen,” Greening recalled. “When the kids came into Powell, they had a musical playground, and it was all based on books!”

And the happy ending, so far?

“We are now showing that 85 percent of children who participate in Ready Readers for a year have early literacy skills to become successful readers when entering kindergarten,” Greening noted. “At the beginning of the year, 38 percent of the children report that they have somebody who read to them at home. By the end of the program, it’s 85 percent. The families tell us that the kids get so excited about reading that when they come home, they insist that we read them a book.”

 

MISSION:

Ready Readers inspired preschool-age children from low-income communities to become readers by reading aloud to them, increasing their exposure to quality books, and providing literacy-related experiences.

HOW YOU CAN HELP:

The organization is in the midst of its biggest fundraiser of the year, the Ready Readers “Non-Event.” Now in its 13th year, supporters and friends are asked to make a donation, but are encouraged to stay home, spend time with their family, and read a book—all in an effort to keep costs down. The annual appeal is ongoing, and contributions are recommended by the end of June. For more information or to donate, visit readyreaders.org.