Opinion

Give children a book, and open their worlds -- Kat Benson

Kat Benson lives in southern Durham.
Kat Benson lives in southern Durham.

Imagine not being able to escape the real world in the pages of your favorite book.

Picture a child who hasn’t had their imagination sparked by reading, all the fantastic characters and stories we know completely hidden to them.

When you open a new book, you open up possibility. When you open a new library, you open up endless worlds of wonder.

The newest Durham library until our main branch is completed is South Regional library, which opened on Alston Avenue in 2012, and soon thereafter hired librarian Miss Erica.

My family met her then, my little baby daughter and toddler son in her lap sitter class, happily clapping along as she sang and read us books.

Earlier this year, Miss Erica left our library for Arizona, but not before a goodbye party. Her smiling face was a touchstone to many children on their path to becoming readers. Between all the farewell hugs I got to ask her what makes a library so special.

It’s the people making these connections, she told me as she looked around the room at children she had seen grow up in front of her very eyes, going from chewing on board books to devouring chapter books.

Miss Erica, like every good children’s librarian, understands that access to information guided by a loving hand has the power to build a community and brighter futures, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the literacy divide in Durham.

I spoke with Daniele J. Berman of Book Harvest about children and reading in our city. The truth is children in Durham whose family is at or below the poverty line are less likely to be read aloud to every day than children from higher-income households. A child from a middle-income home owns an average of 13 books, compared to children in low-income neighborhoods, where there is only one book for every 300 children.

Book Harvest aims to rectify that divide. Its mission is to provide books to children in need, attempting to give “equal access to the resources that are the building blocks of success in life.”

Less than a decade ago, Book Harvest started giving out books to the neediest children in our county. By 2016, around 32,000 children had been given 166,000 books through Book Harvest, books donated by organizations and regular Durhamites like you and I. One of its key programs is Book Babies, where Medicaid-eligible families with infants and toddlers receive age-appropriate books and home visits in order to spark a love of reading early.

Why is reading so paramount to a child’s success? Statistics from Book Harvest tell us that one out of six children who do not read at age level by the end of third grade will not graduate from high school on time, some of them not at all. This rate is four times greater than that of proficient readers. The problem only compounds from there.

The Durham Literacy Center, founded in 1985, combats illiteracy in our county, where one in five adults have low literacy skills. Executive director Lizzie Ellis-Furlong explained that since over half of our African-American and Latino high school students don’t graduate on time, this directly feeds into their ability to obtain a living-wage job.

People living in poverty account for 17 percent of our county’s population, which we can all agree is too high. Durham Literacy Center provides help to these adults with ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and GED programs, computer training, and life skills and literacy instruction for incarcerated youth.

The work Book Harvest and the Durham Literacy Center do for our county is simply life changing for Durhamites from birth forward. They’re changing outcomes and opening minds one person at a time.

If you are reading this, then you were lucky enough to have been taught a love of reading somewhere along the way, and I encourage you to show your gratitude to those who helped you by giving back. Book Harvest is always accepting new and gently used books for children at its headquarters at 2501 University Drive, and the Durham Literacy Center can always use volunteers that it is happy to train. You can find out more at bookharvestnc.org or durhamliteracy.org.

If you have children, you can also join in on an upcoming event to celebrate reading! Book Harvest has teamed up with Scholastic books for their ultimate reading festival for families with children up to 12. Bring your readers to the fun and free event on July 16 from 5-7 p.m. at Burton Elementary School to take photos with book characters Clifford, Geronimo Stilton, and Dog Man; win prizes; participate in crafts and games; and take home free books to read this summer.

Not all Durhamites are lucky enough to have a librarian like Miss Erica in their lives. Let’s strive to make a difference today.

Kat is the founder of SoDu Parents Posse, a progressive and supportive online community for families in Durham, and blogs at Stir Crazy Moms Guide To Durham. You can reach her at soduparentsposse@gmail.com.

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