SJR Column: Sunday November 22, 2020

As originally published in the The State Journal Register.

Getting children off to an early start in learning is the most important step a parent or caregiver can take in giving their child the opportunity for success in school and in life. All of this starts with improving family engagement at an early age, continually exposing children to learning opportunities and creating an environment where learning is encouraged and embraced.

For many families, an abundance of books in the home is not a reality. This lack of access already starts to build unequal foundations for our earliest learners. 61% of America’s low-income children are growing up in homes without books. Furthermore, by the time a child reaches first grade, children in middle-income families engaged in 1,000 to 1,700 hours of picture book reading with an adult compared to low-income families which engaged in an average of 25 hours.

Reading to our youngest children not only helps with bonding, but it is also critical to help them have increased vocabularies, have a greater understanding of their environment, and it helps to teach critical skills that will be needed for their first day of Kindergarten such as listening, paying attention, the ability to focus, recognize colors and shapes, and aids them in their social and emotional development. These foundational skills taught through early reading are key to later success in life.

If we can help address access issues to books, we will have a better chance of achieving our other education goals.

United Way of Central Illinois is proud to partner with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to bring new, free books to preschool age children in Sangamon County.

Children who are registered for the program will receive an age appropriate book in the mail from birth until their fifth birthday. By age five, children can end up with a 60 volume set of books and more importantly a jump start on lifelong learning.

Each book contains family engagement activities which match the theme of the book and further stimulates caregiver/child interaction which helps families have age-appropriate conversations and helps stimulate vocabulary development.

Too many children enter school without even the basic skills they need to learn to read. Across the country, one in four kids grows up not knowing how to read at a basic level. The statistics are more grave for children who come from under-resourced neighborhoods. Three in five families who struggle to make ends meet have no books in their homes for their children.

Since launching the program, we have served more than 5,000 children across Sangamon County to share the joy of reading at home. We’re proud of the success of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, but we can do more. The need for this program is even greater than our capacity which is why we operate a wait list for the program. Currently more than 800 children are awaiting their first book.

As we enter the holidays, we are encouraging our donors and the community to support both early childhood education programs like Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, and other community programs aligned with our education issue area. Together these programs affect the lives of thousands of children across our community by providing learning opportunities, academic support and social and emotional supports.

And this year, we’re proud to announce that SCHEELS will be matching, dollar-for-dollar, the first $2,500 of donations to the campaign. SCHEELS has proven to be one of our greatest advocates for our education programs.

Without these programs, and especially during a time of remote learning, our community’s most vulnerable children would fall further behind.

Investing in critical programs we know work, partnering with organizations to help support and deliver critical education programs, and using data to continue our work on improving education for all area children is central to our success as a United Way, but more importantly it is central to our success as a community.

This holiday season consider giving the gift of reading to a child in our community or participating in our crowdfunding campaign. Did you know that one $26 gift provides a full year of books (12 total) for one child?

Watch our United We Learn session to learn more about supporting early childhood literacy and a quick “how-to” set up your own fundraising page.

To make a gift and to learn more, please click the button below.

Katrina Hays is the Director of Community Impact at United Way of Central Illinois.