Reflections from the CEO:
I started the Freedom Readers organization 8 years ago to help kids read better. This mission grew out of my own realization that reading has shaped me in significant ways over the years. Beginning when I was very young growing up in a house on a dirt road, books changed my world view. My dad, who was born in the segregated south in 1935, and who left school after finishing the 8th grade, read me bedtime stories nightly. He later explained that it was his own mother who had taught him how to read before he went to first grade, a fact that surprised me because it did not fit my expectation for that time. My grandmother emphasized for him the importance of a good education and he passed that along to me. When I was older, I found books to be great companions and escapes into many foreign lands. Some of my best friends lived in books, which helped me avoid major trouble. Some of my peers were not so lucky.
The summer before my senior year in high school, I was one of 250 students to be selected for the S C Governor’s School for Academics, a five-week residential program that helped prepare us for college. There I enrolled in American Autobiography which opened my mind to the stories of this country’s leaders and historical icons. We read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, books about Janis Joplin, Harvey Milk and Maya Angelou. I walked away from that experience wanting to learn more, wanting to be more, and wanting to offer this kind of intensely stimulating opportunity to others who came from communities like mine.
Freedom Readers started with 40 children living in 2 low-income communities in rural South Carolina. The idea occurred to me as I listened to the audiobook Mountains Beyond Mountains. If Paul Farmer, the Harvard educated doctor featured in the book could go to Haiti and almost single-handedly stop the spread of malaria, then surely, I could do something in my area about under-performance in reading. Although my story has not unfolded in quite the seemingly magical way Farmer’s did, I can attest to the compelling energy of watching a vision take shape. One of my first steps was initiating a conversation with the pastor at my church who gave me a chance to speak with the entire congregation about the idea. More than 20 people showed up to the initial meeting, about 15 more than I anticipated. We agreed that Freedom Readers would be a good name for our effort since we wanted to open doors of access for children so they would have the freedom to choose.
From the outset, there was no shortage of people who said the model was destined for failure. One official at the housing authority explained to me that once the families discovered that the program would be structured and that playing around would not be tolerated, they’d never return. Admittedly, it took us a few weeks to establish an atmosphere of scholarship, but we kept showing up each week with a very structured curriculum. The plan was executed without fail; consistency, respect for all, and empowerment remained our priorities. Soon everyone was in step with our program, allowing us to read books together and encouraging young people to take intellectual risks. Due to our steadfastness, we proved that official wrong.
Someone else laughed when they heard that we would give away a brand-new book to every scholar at every meeting. “How do you plan to get your hands on that many books?” they asked. It was a good question. I had no idea. But the research I was doing at the University of South Carolina in my doctoral program repeatedly underscored the impact of building home libraries. According to a 2014 study which examined academic performance of students from 42 countries, having books to read at home allowed children to practice reading more often and led to a scholarly culture. Giving away books would have to remain central to our mission if we wanted to make a difference. In a matter of months, we found the First Book organization which gave us a significant grant to receive new books to give away. That hurdle was also cleared.
Since 2010, we have grown from 2 sites with 40 scholars and tutors to 18 sites where over 300 children can take part in our weekly meetings. We now have data to show that 90% of the scholars in our program have demonstrated growth in Lexile scores, some more than others. Many are more confident about reading in front of a group and speaking to adults. Research also tells us that more than 14 million Americans have reported a fear of public speaking so strong that it has stopped them from advancing in their careers. We want to make sure that the scholars in our program address that fear at an early age so that they can pursue their dreams.
Only this 8th anniversay of our incorporation as a nonprofit in South Carolina, I fondly reflect on the ways Freedom Readers positively impacts the community, especially those community members who serve as tutors. Many have said that the 90 minutes each week they spend with the scholars is relaxing, empowering, and productive. Some, however, see our program as a lifeline. Several years ago, a woman stood up at a training meeting, introduced herself, and proceeded to tell a story about how Freedom Readers saved her life. She explained that she came to us a lonely widow and her connection with us was her first foray back out into the world. If she hadn’t found us, she said, there was no telling how much longer she would have struggled alone in isolation. I’m happy that we were there to welcome her with open arms. I’m even more proud that we continue to offer this service to families and the community free of charge. We are looking forward to being there for more tutors, more scholars, and more families for decades to come.
Thank you to everyone who believed in this work and helped take the very simple idea of reading together on a regular basis and turn it into a movement. Your support and faith have been an invaluable blessing.