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300,000 Free Books a Year: Ferst Foundation’s Powerful Plan for Pre-K Literacy

Did you know that over 60% of low-income families in Georgia don't own a single piece of reading material suitable for kids? Find out how one nonprofit, utilizing key partnerships and a robust volunteer program, is addressing this problem one book at a time.

A handful of the approximately 170,000 Ferst Foundation readers show off their latest book during the Morgan County Primary Summer Transition Program — a 4-week summer literacy skills program for children entering pre-k — offered by Morgan County schools in partnership with the Rollins Center (Atlanta Speech School) and FFCL.

For a minute, go back in time and imagine being a kid. Remember how the smallest things made you excited: the swimming pool, the candy aisle at the grocery store, those new shoes you could swear made you jump higher? Amid our personal collage of memories, there’s one experience that may sum up childhood excitement like no other: receiving a package in the mail addressed specifically to you.

"All the research is telling us that if you don’t get to kids by age three, they’re lost.” 

The Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy (FFCL) creates that memory for 25,000 Georgia children a dozen times a year, while preparing them for a successful student career and a lifetime of learning, by sending them brand new, freshly packaged books through the U.S. Post Office every month until their fifth birthday. That comes to some 300,000 free books (and top-notch memories) every year, and growing. With glaring statistics about the importance of early childhood literacy—like the National Center for Education Statistics study finding that children entering kindergarten without basic literary knowledge are four times more likely to drop out of high school—FFCL is on a crusade to enroll as many families in the program as possible.

“We’re the only state-wide organization in Georgia that specifically serves children age birth to five,” said FFCL President Betsy Wagenhauser. “That specific demographic is completely underserved, even when all the research is telling us that if you don’t get to kids by age three, they’re lost.” Teaching children to read is often seen as the responsibility of our nation’s schools, but any kindergarten teacher will tell you that, while some kids come in ahead of the curve, many more lag behind.

Small staff, smart structure

It may not be comforting to learn that FFCL has just four full-time employees to tackle early childhood literacy in the whole of Georgia, home to more than 700,000 children under the age of six. With an internal structure based on a skilled volunteer program and key partnerships, however, the foundation makes a far greater impact than its staffing numbers suggest.

Started in Madison in 1999, FFCL has come a long way from the days when founder Robin Ferst was personally packaging, addressing, and mailing books to members out of her garage.

“She’d always have a packet of registration forms in her purse, she’d be running down women in Wal-Mart to register their kids,” Wagenhauser said. FFCL has grown exponentially since those early days, reaching into 71 Georgia counties and communities. Much of this growth can be attributed to a strong volunteer base of roughly 800, divided into county-specific Community Action Teams (CATs).

Many nonprofit leaders are aware of the invaluable role skilled volunteers can play, but few have a system as robust as FFCL’s.

“We provide a wealth of information to get a CAT started and help them be successful,” said Operations Manager Tera Cochran. “But we don’t oversee their day-to-day operations, as that would be too much for our staff. From the beginning, [Ferst] was very clear not to ‘police’ any community.”

To find CAT leaders, the foundation looks for community leaders who are passionate about literacy, and encourage them to establish strong relationships with both individuals and organizations that can play a significant role in early childhood development: educators and schools, librarians and libraries, local Chambers of Commerce, Rotary Clubs, and others.

After general program orientation and more specific, extensive training through the “CAT manual,” newly formed CATs are charged with raising money and registering children in the community. FFCL maintains fiscal oversight for nearly all CATs (a few teams act as their own fiscal agents, but submit quarterly reports) in order to monitor fundraising and expenses. FFCL also holds regional summits where CATs and FFCL staff convene to focus on all aspects of a successful operation: “We cover all topics from fundraising and managing databases to social media at the summits,” Cochran said. “If CATs form their teams with the structure we have set in place, and use the tools found in the manual, there is no doubt that they will be a successful and sustaining CAT.”

More than a book

Beyond the book itself, it’s FFCL’s goal to encourage parents and caregivers to become more actively involved in their children’s literacy development by providing supplementary resources. Perhaps the most important of these is the newsletter included with each book sent out. These newsletters are tailored for the specific child, based on the book being sent and the county it’s being sent to, offering discussion guides and tips for parents, activity pages, and local community literacy announcements (as well as sponsor acknowledgement).

“Getting books in the hands of kids is great,” Wagenhauser said. “But another component that really grows childhood literacy is for that child to be read to, to listen to words, and have that family connection.”

Another way FFCL expands its impact is by establishing key partnerships across the state. While individual CATs often collaborate with local literary initiatives, FFCL realizes the importance foundation-wide partnerships can play in visibility, creditability, and, ultimately, funding. The foundation has developed strong relationships with the Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS), Voices for Georgia’s Children, the Atlanta Speech School, Rotary International, Kiwanis Clubs, and United Way, to name a few.

Many of these partnerships are being utilized to register more Ferst readers in metro Atlanta, a particular challenge due to FFCL’s rural location and the sheer number of nonprofits in the city. As Ferst continues to establish more partners in Atlanta, Wagenhauser emphasizes the importance that flexibility and creativity play.

“Not all partnerships will directly help us put books in the hands of kids,” Wagenhauser said. “But they do position us to make important connections, which may lead to furthering our primary goal. We want to be ready to fill any gap or niche within the parameters of our mission.”

This summer, FFCL participated in Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s Summer Reading Club, headed by GEEARS. The program not only allowed FFCL to distribute hundreds of books in Atlanta, but also demonstrated its capacity to adapt its methods and align with partner programs without losing sight of its own mission.

In another partnership, FFCL has adopted the READ strategy developed by the Rollins Center at the Atlanta Speech School, promoting the approach in FFCL newsletters. The READ approach calls for parents to read with their children—not to them—as described by the acronym: Repeat books, Engage and enjoy, Ask questions, and Do more. Backed by research, the strategy is another effort to get parents and caregivers to play an active role in their children’s literacy development.

A lasting impact

With all the strategic planning required to run and grow an efficient and effective nonprofit, it may be easy to overlook the organization’s strongest selling point:  “We’re just trying to get books to kids and have someone read to them,” Wagenhauser said. “I’m not leaving any stone unturned, but at the end of the day [the program] sells itself.”

“Not all partnerships will directly help us put books in the hands of kids, but they do position us to make important connections, which may lead to furthering our primary goal.”

Wagenhauser acknowledges that the program’s impact can be hard to pinpoint due to family mobility and budgetary constraints, as well as the particulars of literacy research. But the available data seems to bear out the program’s value: Morgan County, where nearly 80% of preschoolers are Ferst readers, has seen kindergarten readiness test scores rocket from 46% to 90% since the program began. And the benefits appear to last: in 2012, Morgan County third- through eighth-graders scored higher than the state average in every category of the Criterion-Reference Competency Test.

To top it off, the program only costs FFCL $36 a year per reader. It’s well worth the investment, Wagenhauser contends; no less than Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman has stated that “early-childhood intervention is the most cost-effective way to develop human capital.”

“We’re not trying to save the world,” Wagenhauser said. “But the program is a socioeconomic equalizer and that amount of impact can be infinite.”

Dan Watson is a Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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