Books can change our lives. Literacy can improve our vocabularies, our knowledge and our comprehension skills. As reading is a facet of every part of our education, grade level literacy is of the highest importance. But it isn’t just about facts and figures. Through books, young people can learn to empathize with people they may have previously misunderstood; they can become a part of movements and cultures that may have been previously out of reach. Reading can increase their sense of their part in the global community.
Of course, getting kids to read is often times like getting kids to eat their vegetables. It helps if they see someone they look up to getting to it first. This is why youth-lead literacy initiatives are so important. Young people who are active in their communities and who have inspirational and innovative ideas for inspiring a love of reading in children are the perfect role models to increase literacy.
This is why, every year, the National Education Association and Youth Service America unite to give grants to young people who have submitted innovative program ideas to increase and encourage literacy. Through the Youth Leaders for Literacy grants, over 30 $500 cash grants amounting to $500 each are awarded. With these grants the NEA and YSA allow young people to give back to their communities, providing an emphasis on literacy and civic engagement for youth-created and driven programs.
Winners include George Cook III, a sixth grader who, in 2008, won the grant for his program which rewards boys who read with free haircuts. Francis D. Raub Middle School won one of the 2010 grants. They used their grant to buy $500 worth of books which they then donated to a local hospital along with an English/Spanish language brochure they had designed which explained how important it is to read out loud to infants and toddlers.
Many of the Youth Leaders for Literacy also participated in Global Youth Service Day, turning their reading projects into one-day events to spread information about how to replicate their programs or to start your own. Everything from neighborhood book clubs to book drives to birthday parties for Dr. Seuss were part of the agenda.
Of course, these grants are not the only ways programs like this get their start. AmeriCorps has several literacy based programs that have been featured in ICP’s recent publication, Transforming Communities through Service: A Collection of 52 of the Most Innovative AmeriCorps Programs in the United States. These include the VCU AmeriCorps and America Reads program which provides three school districts across Richmond, VA with one-on-one and small group literacy tutoring. The Literacy AmeriCorps of Palm Beach County uses its volunteers to provide literacy tutoring to people of all ages. They also serve as graduation coaches, library tutors and GED prep teachers, providing a wealth of second chances for people whose literacy education hadn’t been as strong.
Getting kids involved in starting their own literacy education programs helps them get involved in their communities by spreading love of a skill that can change lives. Literacy education can help bridge the achievement gaps that plague more impoverished communities. The ability to read, to connect with characters and situations, provides inspiration for engagement that might otherwise have been out of our reach.But even more importantly, reading reminds everyone that we are all part of the same community. And as part of this global community they have a right to the same things we do. We all have a right to characters we love, to authors who ask the same questions we do, to seeing new places and learning about different cultures. We all have the same rights to imagination, dreams and exploration. We can all read the same books.
Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison News 2006