THE BLOG
01/23/2015 10:45 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

Literacy Program Unlocking New Hope for Native American Children

Some of my fondest memories as a parent were of reading to my children. They would snuggle up next to me with book in hand, excited for me to take them deep into stories told in words and pictures. Among their favorites was Deborah Guarino's Is Your Mama a Llama, a dog-eared book that we must have read together more than a thousand times - so often that I would find myself trying to skip ahead, leaving out less-important passages or pages. But invariably, my kids would be onto me, even before they knew how to read themselves. They knew the story by heart and wouldn't let me omit a precious word.

I treasure those moments together, and it was during such times that our parent-child bonds took hold in special ways. I was not only their mom but the gatekeeper to the bigger world around them, to their imaginations, to possibilities yet to be explored. Such is the magic of reading. What my kids - now busy in their 20s - don't know, is that those books are safely stored in my attic, ready for them to read someday to their own children.

A new report from UNICEF about the global spike in poverty among the world's richest nations, including the United States, brought my reading memories to mind. Over the last six years, the number of children living below the poverty line in the U.S. rose by 1.7 million. The hardships they are enduring take many forms, but foremost among them is being denied the opportunity to learn, the single most important step toward a life better than that of their parents. Poverty is perhaps the primary culprit behind kids who are not reading at grade level or drop out of school before graduating.

Perhaps nowhere is the situation more acute than within Native American communities. In South Dakota, for example, the school dropout rate is more than twice the national average - more than half do not graduate. More than 80 percent of Native American eighth grade students in South Dakota read below grade level. Many parents, themselves illiterate and dealing with stressful economic conditions, are largely disengaged from their children's schooling.

ChildFund International is seeking to change this pattern. While many Americans are aware of our far-reaching programs in 30 developing countries around the world, ChildFund also works domestically, including with Native American communities where poverty is more the rule than the exception. In South Dakota, we have introduced the Just Read! program, an innovative yet straightforward initiative designed to get more books into the hands of the area's Lakota children and, importantly, engage their parents in supportive ways. (Just Read! operates in our Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas program areas, as well.)

Over the past year, the Just Read! program touched the lives of more than 1,000 Lakota children. It gave them access to books, introduced them to educational games and encouraged both the children and their parents to get busy reading. When children visit a local ChildFund office, they can check out books, many of which are relevant to their culture and heritage. Students take the books home to read and share with their parents and siblings, and once they finish, they can swap out their books for new books. Each book comes with a reading log and an activity response sheet so children can share their reading experience and keep track of how many books they finish, and each month, the most prolific readers are eligible for prize drawings - bookstore gift cards, games and educational toys.

A critical part of the program involves the parents. In this region of South Dakota - not unlike many areas where poverty has deep roots - a culture of reading does not exist. Many parents are concerned about meeting basic needs, so reading is seen as a low priority. This community-wide mindset contributes significantly to the challenge, and so a major component of the Just Read! program involves changing attitudes.

Parents are trained to help encourage reading and a positive learning environment at home. They learn the importance of reading aloud to their children, and see it modeled through group reading sessions and assist with filling out children's book logs. Parents also receive "Read to Me" calendars that feature one book a month, a suggested reading schedule and some learning activities they can do with their children. Communities hold monthly reading festivities where the culture of reading is celebrated and reinforced.

Reading, of course, is the foundation of learning, and we should not and cannot allow children - even our nation's poorest children - to be denied one of the fundamental building blocks for a life of self-sufficiency, for the chance to grow beyond the confines of their small worlds and to create for themselves new opportunity and achievement. Just Read! is not just reading. For parents, it's a chance to deepen relationships with their children, just as I did so many years ago. And for the children, opening books is really opening new doors to their future.