Arkansas town promotes literacy one kid at a time
Hugging her stuffed lamb, Nija Graves, 5, picks one of her favorite books, Rain, Rain, from a handcrafted oak bookcase personalized with her name, then tells her mother that she’s ready to read.
“We read every evening,” says Sherry Graves, 46, of Conway, Ark. (pop. 43,167). “Sometimes Nija says, ‘Will you read me five books?’ She always wants more books.”
Nija is among 350 Conway children who have received free bookcases stocked with books since 2005, thanks to A Bookcase for Every Child, a project started by Jim Davidson and run like clockwork by a team of community volunteers.
“We do the bookcase project because we care. We love these kids,” says Davidson, 72, of Conway, a syndicated newspaper columnist whose concern about illiteracy inspired him to create the bookcase project.
Spreading the joy
“Parental and community involvement is the only way to improve literacy,” says Davidson, who came up with the idea to spread the joy of reading by building and providing custom-made bookcases and starter libraries of a dozen books to 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in Head Start, a federal program that promotes education among preschoolers from low-income households where books may be scarce and parents sometimes struggle with reading.
“The primary purpose of this bookcase project is to encourage and help parents in disadvantaged families to read to and with their children,” says Davidson, who donates the proceeds from his book of columns, Learning, Earning & Giving Back, to the literacy project. “If these young kids don’t get the language foundation, vocabulary and communication skills they need, they’re behind before they ever start to school.”
Since Davidson launched the project, more than 2,000 volunteers in Conway have kept it aloft. They bake cakes and grill sausages for the Bookcase Literacy Banquet each October to raise money for wood and other supplies to build the bookcases. They collect and sort thousands of donated books, cut and sand boards, assemble and stain the bookcases, and affix personalized brass nameplates.
Volunteer Mickey Cox, 71, of Conway, devotes about three weeks each March helping build 50 bookcases. “It’s a grand community thing to do,” says Cox, a retired utility company executive. “I look at the inability to read as like being in a prison without bars. You’re totally dependent on other people to tell you something when you can’t read.”
The highlight for Cox is watching appreciative youngsters accept their bookcases at a banquet in their honor each April at the Faulkner County Public Library in Conway. “We see their eyes light up,” he says. “It makes you feel good to help.”
As intended, the bookcase project is spurring family reading at home, says Tiffany Baker, a coordinator at the Community Action Program for Central Arkansas, which oversees Head Start. Since the project began, the number of books borrowed from the agency’s lending library has more than doubled.
“Children bring their parents in to pick out a book and say, “Hey, that’s what I want to read tonight,’” says Baker, 32. “We’re seeing more parent involvement in reading.”
Such enthusiastic support for A Bookcase for Every Child from recipients and volunteers is a point of pride for Davidson. “The project doesn’t cost taxpayers a penny and can leapfrog across the country,” he says.
Three dollars from each $15.95 banquet ticket is set aside as seed money to spread the program to other communities. Davidson has helped start programs in El Dorado, Ark.
(pop. 21,530), Stuttgart, Ark. (pop. 9,745) and Wynne, Ark. (pop. 8,615), and has compiled instructions covering every phase of the project to assist other communities.
“Each year we’re reaching out to more people,” Davidson says. “Someday, we could have A Bookcase for Every Child in every state.”
And that could translate into a storybook beginning for children like Nija, who can’t wait to open another book.