A Culture of Literacy: Family Reading Partnership Marks 20 Years


By Rob Montana, Tompkins Weekly
Posted on October 9, 2017 in News

Photo by Rob Montana / Tompkins Weekly Family Reading Partnership’s employees are, from left, Jeff Wilkinson, operations and program assistant; Dorothy Lovelace, programs and outreach coordinator; and Executive Director Aly Evans.

As the parent of a younger child in Tompkins County, I have become quite familiar with the Bright Red Bookshelves around town. My child was the recipient of books at birth and doctor’s visits. Our family took part in several Kids’ Book Fest events over the years.

What do all of these things have in common? – Family Reading Partnership.

These initiatives have all been part of Family Reading Partnership during its 20 years of existence and, as the organization looks forward to the next 20 years, it is evaluating its operation to ensure it is still making an impact 20 years from now.

Aly Evans became Family Reading Partnership’s executive director in June 2015, coming aboard during a time of change. The financial position of the organization, she said, was not as stable as it had been, with gaps from where funding was coming. That instability – both in leadership change and financial insecurity – led to a reevaluation of how the organization was operating.

“With a budget, where the largest item is payroll, a lot of organizations are told by leadership teams to cut payroll,” said Evans, adding that doing so can negatively impact programming. “I felt we needed to make sure the programs remained high quality.”

As a result of that closer look, Family Reading Partnership put together a plan to move the organization forward in a positive way.

“We did a deep look at the core of Family Reading Partnership with the board, there were a number of long meetings,” Evans said. “We decided to make sure our focus was on kids before birth to age 5, and their families.

“In deciding that, we asked how can we make sure our programming fits that,” she added. “That led to some hard choices and some programs will no longer be supported. Kids Bookfest is one, sadly, that we will not have.”

Programs that FRP is actively running include:
• Books to Grow On – the program provides new, high quality, age-appropriate books to children at specific developmental stages, from before birth to age 5. Evans said the program has expanded so children will receive a total of 11 books during their early childhood.
• Bright Red Bookshelf – gently used books are donated, and then the books are made available – for free at more than 50 locations throughout the county – to the community.
• Traveling Books – volunteer readers visit childcare homes and centers every 2 weeks with a crate of books they leave for children to enjoy until the next visit.
• Love Those Letters! – children in pre-K and Head Start received a “Love Those Letters!” book, DVD and CD that introduce the alphabet through music, movement and beautiful artwork.
• Read-Along Love Songs for Baby – a collection of 5 books and CD is presented to low-income expectant families by a home visiting nurse to encourage and support families to talk, sing, read and play with babies from the start.

In addition to Evans, the rest of the Family Reading Partnership is filled with new staff members. Dorothy Lovelace is the new programs and outreach coordinator, coming to FRP after coordinating services for families through Franziska Racker Centers; Amber Smith is serving as an early childhood specialist in a consultant role, having experience working with young children in the area and currently serving as the executive director of the Finger Lakes Toy Library; and Jeff Wilkinson is the new operations and program assistant overseeing day-to-day needs of the organization, having previously worked in development with Elevate IMS.

In the Beginning
Brigid Hubberman founded FRP in 1997, having had informative experiences working as a family educator with TST BOCES “Family Reading Program” and engagement with families in the Women, Infants, and Children program.

“Family Reading Partnership grew out of the realization that a large number of children in Tompkins County – estimated to be 25 percent – were entering school having had few or no experiences with books before they entered,” said Hubberman about the organization’s origin. “We were spurred into action recognizing that literacy development – the process that brings children to reading – begins long before children enter school, ideally with a multitude of rich book experiences at home and in the community.

“Motivated by a vision for a culture of literacy we came together determined to support all families in providing that for all children,” she added. Hubberman said it became clear the program had a positive effect on youth in Tompkins County, whether it was through books received, events attended or interaction with “our own reading rock stars, John Simon and Cal Walker.”

“There are so many stories of impact, but one through the eyes and experience of a child I love, comes from a mother who moved to Ithaca with her young daughter after the Katrina Hurricane, and was struggling to get back on her feet. She told what it meant to find the comfort of books she could take from Bright Red Bookshelves around town that she could keep,” she said. “One day at Social Services, her daughter sat down after selecting a book from the Bright Red Bookshelf there, and said, ‘Mommy in this town they have books for me.’
“The vision for a culture of literacy really did take hold and become a reality. There is incredible power and impact in each of the individual programs, and in all of them collectively becoming part of our cultural identity- in saying this is who we are and what we do here,” she added. “We as a community express care and support for our families raising children, as we wrap our arms around them, and connect them to each other with beautiful books and love.”

She left FRP in 2015, and there are a lot of things Hubberman is proud of from her time with the organization.

“There is a saying that you can see the world with scarcity or abundance, and whichever way you see it is true,” she said. “As a community, with love, generosity, and a commitment to include and honor all families, together we dared to choose abundance, and create a kind of reading magic for our children unlike anywhere in the United States, and maybe the world.

“While I take great pride in the innovative initiatives we developed together, my greatest pride is in the values that underpin the programs – staying true to the beliefs and principles upon which FRP was founded, even in challenging times,” Hubberman added. “Together we truly changed the very culture of a community, with children’s books and family reading reminders becoming embedded enough to feel like this is who we are, and what we do here.”

What’s Next
Evans said that after identifying how Family Reading Partnership wanted to move forward, it set about putting together a balanced budget that included some more sustainable funding streams, and put forth a plan to reach goals in unrestricted donations, grants and sponsorships.

“We don’t get state or federal funds, so we rely on donations, grants and sponsorships,” she said. One of the biggest challenges of raising money for the organization is the sheer number of other non-profits that exist in Tompkins County.

“Ithaca is a small town with a small set of big funders,” Evans said. “We are a 20-year-old organization that has a certain perception in the community. People like to fund new and sexy, so we’ve thought how we can approach what we do in new ways.

“With the board, we drafted Family Reading Partnership 2.0, basically outlining what we are doing now,” she added. “Twenty years ago, families had certain needs with regard to literacy. Now families have different needs.”

One question is how FRP handles the technology influx into literacy, with various devices offering the opportunity to read.
“The canned answer is no screen time for babies,” Evans said. “But, is that realistic for today’s families? The schools today are giving kids Chromebooks and iPads in Kindergarten.”

Evans said that the broad Family Reading Partnership 2.0 framework needs to be further developed into a strategy. That, she said, will answer the questions about what the organization is going to offer the community, how it is going to do it and when it will be done.
“We want to continue making a difference in the community,” Evans said. “We will come up with a plan, test it and evaluate it, making adjustments as we go along.”

A big focus for the organization moving forward is developing connections with other community resources to avoid duplication of services and explore how those relationships can provide benefits to all partners.

In the end, Evans said, the most important thing is for Family Reading Partnership to keep doing what it’s best at – creating a culture of literacy for families throughout Tompkins County.

“The work is always going to be important – there are always babies being born, always needing parent engagement – and that’s why we’re here,” she added. “If we can be more of a catalyst in our community beyond banners and Bright Red Bookshelves, that is great. That’s what we’re working toward.”

The Family Reading Partnership has received a Best Practices award from the Library Of Congress in this year’s 2015 Literacy Awards.

Read more about it here. (pdf)