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The Gift of Reading

The Gift of Reading

Once a month, Katherine Bumgarner picks up a special delivery from the labor and delivery nurses at King’s Daughters Medical Center. Waiting for her is a stack of forms for the Ferst Readers program. Provided to each Lincoln county mother in her discharge papers, the form puts her new baby on a mailing list to receive a book once a month for the next five years, free of charge.

Ferst Readers, based in Madison, Georgia, was founded in 1999 to increase early childhood literacy skills. Studies have shown that the most important factor in school readiness is exposure to books and being read to at home. Higher literacy rates are found in children who have been read to at home, in addition to better language skills.

Also, children’s reading scores are directly impacted by the number of books in a child’s home. In light of this information, Ferst Readers has spent the last 21 years bringing books to families in Georgia, Florida, Montana, and closer to home in Lincoln County, Mississippi. 

Five years ago, Pam Womack was on vacation in Georgia when she struck up a conversation about childhood literacy with a librarian. Pam, along with her friend Katherine Bumgarner, were having difficulty getting a program off the ground in Lincoln County, and the librarian suggested Ferst Readers. “That afternoon I called Ferst and was so excited that I practically ran the director over with my enthusiasm and relief at finding them,” she says. “The most wonderful thing about Ferst Readers is that they do only one thing, and that is exposing children and their families to children’s books.”

“And these are not just any children’s books. These are beautiful, bookstore-quality books, handpicked by a team of education experts, parents, and teachers, designed in a sequence to introduce the child starting at age 0 until school age, which is around 5, by having parents hold the child lovingly and read to them,” adds Pam. “Included with each book is a parent’s guide, with activities and suggestions to maximize the learning process.”

Rosie Madrid, age 3, loves checking the mail when a new Ferst book arrives each month. “The books we’ve received from Ferst have definitely encouraged me to keep reading to Rosie, and it’s given her a love for books I never thought she would have,” says Gabby Madrid. “The quality of the books is great, too! My daughter loves her books and isn’t the most careful with them, but they have all lasted us over three years and are still in great condition.” 

“In Lincoln County, we have so many low-income families, and Ferst has been the perfect solution to a very real problem in our backyard,” says Pam. “If parents sign up their newborn, they will receive a total of 60 books by the time the child is 5 years old.” Signup sheets are also kept at pediatrician offices, which is where Gabby signed up her daughter, and given out at back-to-school nights. Parents are encouraged to sign their children up before the age of four to get the most out of the program. 

The Ferst Readers headquarters takes care of mailing out the books each month. Locally, the Community Action Teams handle the registration confirmations and the majority of the funding to pay for the books. It takes $36 to fund a year’s worth of books for one child; businesses and civic groups can help offset the cost, and their partnership with Ferst brings awareness to specific literacy issues in each community. Throughout the year, a member of the CA team goes to the various preschools, daycares, hospitals, and pediatric clinics to collect completed registration forms. Data is compiled and forwarded to headquarters. In the past five years, Ferst Readers has distributed over 40,000 books to children in Lincoln County. 

“Having been an elementary language arts teacher for many years, I realize how important literacy is, especially in the time before a child becomes a student. Ferst Readers gave me the perfect opportunity to promote early literacy for children of Lincoln County, which is the only county in Mississippi to have this program.” says Katherine. “We have enrolled approximately 56% of the children under 5 in Lincoln County. We cannot wait to see the results as our students enter school in the next few years!”

“There is no substitute for reading to your child between birth and age 5,” says Pam.  “Reading is the key to the world, and interaction with books gives children the freedom to enjoy it.”

If you are interested in setting up a Ferst Readers program in your community, visit www.ferstreaders.org or email info@ferstreaders.org. 

Sarah Reynolds is a freelance writer living in Brookhaven, MS. She enjoys a full night’s sleep, uninterrupted conversations with her husband, and when all three of her daughters eat their vegetables at dinner. She writes about the complete lack of this in her blog, www.SouthernFriedLove.org.

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