Person of the Week
20 Years, 2 Million Books: Tolson Invites All to Celebrate with Read to Grow
At Read to Grow’s headquarters in Branford, Executive Director Kyn Tolson and a small staff, together with many volunteers, spread the non-profit’s mission of promoting early childhood literacy statewide. On Thursday, Oct. 3, Kyn invites the public to support Read to Grow by attending its 20th anniversary celebration honoring the vision and leadership of founder Roxanne J. Coady. (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
It all started in Branford in 1999. Now, 20 years and more than two million books later, Read to Grow has grown into a statewide non-profit supporting the importance of developing early childhood literacy.
During the past two decades, Read to Grow has served more than 1.3 million people, opened 34 free-distribution book places, given away 327,260 newborn literacy packets, and formed 74 partnerships with non-profits.
“We are really a state-wide program,” says Executive Director Kyn Tolson.
That’s something worth celebrating. Kyn invites supporters to come out to enjoy Read to Grow’s 20th anniversary celebration honoring founder Roxanne Coady on Thursday ,Oct. 3, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the New Haven Lawn Club.
Coady’s name recognition is high on the shoreline, and beyond, thanks to Madison-based R.J. Julia Independent Booksellers, a shoreline staple she established 29 years ago.
It was also Coady’s vision and leadership that has made Read to Grow a success, says Kyn.
“It’s a really special event because we’re honoring Roxanne Coady, who founded Read to Grow, and who has been its board chair until June 30. It’s a salute to her, and we’re creating a special fund in her honor: the Roxanne J. Coady Legacy Fund for Children’s Literacy,” says Kyn.
Coady now continues her connection to Read to Grow as board chair emeritus.
Read to Grow’s 20th anniversary celebration will take place in the New Haven Lawn Club’s elegant ballroom with cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and special guests. Tickets and sponsorships are available now. Those interested in attending should RSVP by Wednesday, Sept. 25 at readtogrow.org/20years or by calling 203-488-6800.
Most Pressing Needs
Even as the excitement is building for the 20th anniversary celebration, the state-wide work of building literacy from birth continues at Read to Grow’s headquarters at 53 School Ground Road in Branford. The organization has eight staff (full and part-time). Supporting the staff are Read to Grow’s much-appreciated volunteers (more are always welcome).
If the non-profit’s small staff could highlight one of the most pressing needs right now, it would be support for the Books for Kids program, says Evelyn Tomasello, Books for Kids co-coordinator with Linda Sylvester.
“We need books for kids from birth to high school age, but the need is mostly for the 0 to 3, 4 to 7 population,” says Evelyn. “We have 34 book places throughout the state, and we replenish every eight weeks, with anywhere from 150 to 250 books,” per location, says Evelyn. “They’re open to the community, so anybody is welcome to come and get free books for their children.”
In Branford, the Read to Grow headquarters includes a book place that’s open to the community. The book place in East Haven at the Overbrook Early Learning Center is one among many that has a high demand for bilingual Spanish books for early readers, says Evelyn.
“We give away every bilingual book we can get, but we need many more. It’s something a lot of our book places are asking for,” she says.
“These book places are not lending libraries,” Kyn stresses. “One of the critical principles of Read to Grow is we give books to children to keep, to create their home libraries.”
Because families can take up to two books per visit, and more and more families are visiting book places, another critical need Read to Grow is facing right now is amassing book donations. As part of its effort to encourage donations, Read to Grow provides tips on organizing a book drive as a project for local groups or individuals to undertake. All information on how to support Books for Kids can be found at readtogrow.org.
It’s also important to note Read to Grow seeks donations only of gently used books (no rips or tears, stains, scribbling or other disfigurements) or new books.
“The condition of the books should be the same condition you’d want to have in your own home,” says Evelyn.
The Single Factor
Why is having books in the home so important? Of all the many facts and figures shared by Read to Grow, Kyn’s favorite comes from a 10-year, world-wide family study done in 2010.
“If you were to take one single factor that predicts how far a child’s education will go, it’s not the wealth of the family, it’s not the education of the parents. The single factor is how many books are in the home,” Kyn says. “You might think, ‘That’s odd,’ but it’s not. It’s really about expectations. If books are a normal part of life, and I grow up thinking, ‘Oh, books are read to me, and I will read to myself,’ you can imagine what that opens in the mind, and what it can lead to.”
Read to Grow’s mission statement fits that ideal, stating the non-profit’s goal is “to promote language skills and literacy for children, beginning at birth, and to support parents as their babies’ first teachers.”
“Our mission statement is really kind of wonderful,” says Kyn. “And it’s the second half of the mission statement that gets into our purpose. It’s not only to provide the tools; it is to educate parents, caregivers, teachers, even health care providers, to tell them why sharing books is important. The brain develops 80 percent of its adult size in the first three years of life, and that’s why we have such a focus on birth to three. Books are a way to develop the brain.”
If Kyn could clear one thing up with the public, it’s that Read to Grow does so much more than “just give books.”
In its literature, at its website and through its programming, Read to Grow provides facts and figures to help underscore the importance of reading from a young age.
“Before we start marching out what we do, we like to say why we do it,” says Kyn. “These facts, based on research, help to show why we do what we do. And I hope they show the profound importance, the why of it—why we are doing this, why it matters, and why it’s needed.”
A Full Roster
At age 20, Read to Grow now offers three types of programs. Its Books for Babies program, which provides literacy packets to mothers of newborns, is being implemented at 14 hospitals as well as 8 prenatal project sites, reaching more than 64 percent of all newborns in the state annually. Books for Kids has 34 book places and 13 partnerships. And its latest, Early Steps to School Success, is the first program of its kind to be offered in an urban setting, through a partnership with three New Haven schools. Read to Grow collaborated with national non-profit, Save the Children, to bring the program to New Haven.
“That’s our newest program. We started it this calendar year,” says Kyn. “Save the Children actually runs this program elsewhere in the country, and they created it in the early 2000s. But they’ve run it in only rural communities—in Appalachia, in Native American reservations, in migrant populations in Southern California.”
The main purpose of the program is to work with at-risk families with children below the age of five to help the prepare the kids for kindergarten.
“About two years ago, Save the Children said, ‘This program really works well. We can’t spread it fast enough.’ We heard about it, and when I first read what their mission statement was, I said ‘Wow—I think they stole our mission statement!’” says Kyn, laughing. “So right now, we are only urban site in the country with the program.”
Early Steps in New Haven is being fully funded by non-profit Read to Grow,
Kyn thanks Read to Grow’s all-volunteer, nine-member Board of Directors for supporting the new program and all of the work of the organization.
“It’s an excellent board,” says Kyn. “They are all very accomplished people, who are all very behind the mission.”
Read to Grow receives no state or federal funding for any of its programs. That’s why donations to the organization, such as those from foundations and individuals, and the likes of sponsorships and ticket purchases supporting the Oct. 3 20th anniversary celebration, are so important, says Kyn.
“We don’t get federal grants, we don’t get state grants,” says Kyn. “All our funding is donations. We are so grateful for all of the contributions we receive.”
Read to Grow’s 20th anniversary Celebration honoring Roxanne J. Coady is on Thursday, Oct. 3 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at The New Haven Lawn Club. For more event information and to purchase tickets, visit readtogrow.org/20years. For more information on Read to Grow, including how to donate gently used books for children or to make a monetary donation online, visit readtogrow.org or call 203-488-6800.