State will pick up tab for free books for low income families

By ELIZABETH MELVILLE elizabeth@newnan.com The Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy have teamed up to give a life-changing gift to underprivileged children statewide -- the gift of reading. The goal of the partnership is to address childhood literacy across the state -- specifically low income families and children in foster care. To reach them, every child enrolled in the state's Childcare and Parent Services Program (CAPS), as well as up to 43,000 children in foster care will receive an age-appropriate book in the mail every month from birth until the child's fifth birthday from the Ferst Foundation.
"Ferst books are free for every child, but we especially want to get books in those households where children are most likely not to have books available to them," said Janie Lore, a Coweta Ferst volunteer. The best part, according to Lore, is that the state is going to pick up the tab, which will enable the non-profit organization to get more books into the hands of economically disadvantaged families in Coweta. "Approximately 61 percent of low income families do not have a single piece of reading material suitable for a child," said B.J. Walker, commissioner of the Department of Human Services. "That's a staggering number. Research has proven that children who do not have access to books and are not read to during their critical brain development period -- birth to 4 years old -- fall far behind those children who have parents or caregivers who read to them." "During the past 10 years, we have given 2.3 million books to Georgia's children in order to give our state an educated, competitive and productive workforce," said Robin Ferst, founder of the Ferst Foundation. "As a result, our children are coming to school better prepared to learn to read -- 33-44 percent better for those we have reached to date." While Coweta's Ferst Foundation is currently not registering new children into the program, Lore said local Ferst volunteers have discussed ways to identify groups that they hope to strategically target in the future. "We're trying to serve the students on the roll still," said Lore. "Right now, we're still trying to get financially stable because we don't want to stop the books again." Coweta Ferst plans to start gathering data to ensure that the number of children entering kindergarten ready for school continues to increase. "We want to make sure we're effective," said Lore. "We want to be results-oriented." In the future, Ferst does plan to add more children to the roll, starting with children in the Head Start program. In the past, Ferst began registering children by targeting those in Head Start and those in public housing. However, Lore stresses that Ferst has always been available to every child. "The idea is for every child to have the same book and read that book by kindergarten," said Lore. "Our goal is to continue to increase the number we serve every year." The vast majority of children who start behind when they enter school stay behind, leading to an increase in dropout rates among low-income and minority students. The situation in Georgia is worse than the national average. A third of Georgia's children come to school unprepared to learn. Georgia scored 47th of all states on SAT scores in 2009. Georgia has the nation's third highest rate of high school dropouts. Lore said Ferst needs to receive more donations every year in order to expand the number of children they're serving. A donation of $36 sponsors one child's enrollment in the program for one year. The organization is concluding a "very successful" Christmas card sale, featuring a painting by local artist Martin Pate, according to Lore. During the past 10 years, Ferst Foundation has given more than 2.3 million books in 75 of 159 Georgia counties. Each book is high-quality, colorful and age-appropriate; and includes a parent support guide newsletter with book guide and activity page. A few featured books include "The Little Engine that Could," "Llama, Llama Red Pajama" and "Goodnight Gorilla." "Some children just have less than other children," said Lore. "These books are one way they can feel more included. "This is a step in the right direction." For more information about the Ferst Foundation, visit cowetaferst.org


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