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United Way launches reading initiative
Adults encouraged to read to youth 15 minutes daily
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Help support United Way’s Read, Learn, Succeed

  • Buy books for children from low-income homes
  • Volunteer to read to a student once a week
  • Educate your employees about the importance of early learning
  • Host a book drive
  • Host a food drive to help low-income families, as food fuels minds
  • Host a book show for a friend or co-worker expecting a baby
  • Support a book swap, where parents can exchange children’s books
  • Take children to visit a library and get their own library cards
  • Become a partner in education with a local preschool or day care
  • Help an adult learn to read

Source: United Way of Hall County

On the screen behind Candace Kendle, an image flashed of two separate brain scans.

“On your left is the brain scan of a child who has been read to, talked to, engaged with in his environment,” said the president and co-founder of Read Aloud. “You can see how it lights up.”

The brain scan on the right, however, did not show the same level of activity. It was of a child who had not had the stimulation from birth.

“During those first three or four years of life, we lay down brain cells and neural pathways that we use for later development,” Kendle said, adding some parents wonder if a baby really hears and understands what is happening. “They are hearing you. They are seeing you. They are feeling you. Reading aloud from birth is a way to bond to a parent, a grandparent, a child care provider, and stimulate the brain cell development and lay down neural pathways that we use for the rest of our lives.”

Kendle was speaking at the Read, Learn, Succeed breakfast Thursday to kick off United Way of Hall County’s initiative to engage parents and community members in making sure all children have the opportunity to succeed academically before reaching kindergarten.

“This initiative began with a conversation last summer with our school systems and the business community and other nonprofits that support education,” United Way Vice President of Resource Development Joy Griffin said. “It quickly became obvious to us ... there was a need to better prepare our children to start school ready to learn, to give them the opportunity to have that great success.”

She said research has shown the first few years of life are the most critical in developing the necessary reading skills to lead to that success.

“We have such an opportunity in Gainesville and Hall County because we have a vibrant community economically,” Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “We have schools throughout Hall County which are excellent and can prepare our children. Our message to you is when we get a child at 5 years old, we have missed the opportunity that Dr. Kendle has talked about today.”

Information from Read Aloud, which partners with United Way nationally, states only 48 percent of children in the United States are read to on a daily basis. The lack of engagement and interaction with adults can lead to a lag in children’s brain development, ultimately sending them on a path to academic failure.

Kendle said 65 percent of fourth-grade students not reading at grade level end up on welfare or in jail in their adult lives.

“This is a crisis,” she said. “This is not something that we can ignore. We are falling behind the world.”

One of the solutions is to encourage parents to read aloud to children for at least 15 minutes every day. She said there are reading opportunities everywhere — from the obvious children’s book to grocery lists and traffic signs.

Gainesville City Schools has encouraged this behavior in a similar program called Read and Rise in its elementary schools. It’s a six-week course for parents that provides advice and lessons on how to best engage with their kids.

“Parents are the child’s first teacher,” Dyer said. “Parents can help their children. Parents want to help their children. We may need to help parents help their children.”

Alma Islas, mom to seven children, is a graduate of Read and Rise.

“This has helped me to learn how important it is to read to the children,” she said through an interpreter. “I have learned how important it is to read for 15 minutes, even if it’s not that long of a time but it’s going to make a difference when they grow up and they’re going to become good people.”

Reading to and engaging with your children now leads to their future career and personal success, Kendle said.

“What is so important is for parents to understand that learning begins at birth and we are preparing children for a world that they know nothing about,” she added, saying jobs were no longer about “brawn” but about “brain.”

In a visit to a ketchup manufacturing plant, Kendle reported she saw only a dozen people while the rest of the work was done by machines.

“Robotics, engineering, technology is what’s driving manufacturing,” she said. “And while we are working hard to bring manufacturing jobs back to this country, they won’t be manufacturing jobs that employ hundreds and thousands of people in the way they did in the 1950s.”

United Way is asking for the community’s help in donating money or books to its efforts of supplying summer reading material to 600 rising kindergarten students. Before May 16, people can donate $10 to purchase five books, or donate gently used or new books directly to the United Way headquarters at 527 Oak St.

Business leaders are being asked to share the information about reading just 15 minutes a day to their children, as well.

“This is more than a campaign or an initiative,” said Tracy Vardeman with Northeast Georgia Health System. “It’s really a cultural transformation.

“At Northeast Georgia Health System, we’ve been thinking about this and we feel like there’s many ways we can step up and help,” she added. “We are one of Hall County’s largest employers and we can start with our own.”

In addition to disseminating information among employees, she said almost 4,000 babies are delivered in the Northeast Georgia Health System annually.

“What better time to deliver that message and help them, empower them with tools?” Vardeman asked. “We don’t have all of the strategies mapped out, but there’s just so much opportunity to make a difference. We’re going to have our eye on what we can do.”

Ultimately, engaging and interacting with the child is up to the parent, but as Islas pointed out, sometimes all an adult needs is a little push in the right direction.

“Encourage us to grow, and to grow with our kids,” Islas said. “I ask you to support this program because it’s very important that our parents can learn to teach and support our children.”