PRAIRIE GROVE -- A fairly new non-profit organization, only about 14 months old, hopes to make a difference in children's lives by promoting and encouraging parents to read with their children from infancy onward.
Ralph Nesson, executive director of NWA Books for Kids, earlier this month walked from his home in Fayetteville to Siloam Springs -- by way of Farmington, Prairie Grove and Lincoln -- and then back, an approximate 100-mile trek, to raise money for the organization and to bring awareness to the importance of early reading.
Nesson has worked with national Bright Futures organization based in Joplin and Ozark Literacy Council but said his interest is "pure family literacy." Bright Futures is a national organization based in Joplin, Mo., to help meet the physical needs of children and has a chapter in Siloam Springs, while Ozark Literacy concentrates more on adults.
Family Literacy Focus
Nesson said he was encouraged to start a new group that only focuses on family literacy. NWA Books for Kids is all volunteer, except for Nesson, who is considered a part-time consultant for the group. It has a 12-member board of directors.
"Pure family literacy is what this is all about," Nesson said. "Encouraging parents to read with their children from infancy onward, to keep lots of books in the home, to enrich the family atmosphere with creative activities, to explore the community, helping children to develop their minds so when they are starting school, they are on equal footing with all the other children who have possibly more advantages."
The "bread and butter" of NWA Books for Kids, Nesson said, are its Eat and Read programs, where parents come into a school, eat a nutritious meal, read with their children and then take a book home. The books are ones that are recommended by teachers at the schools, Nesson said.
He wants parents to put the books on a shelf so that their children can reach them and then make reading an every day or every week event in the home.
Through its first 14 months, NWA Books has sponsored 18 Eat and Read programs. Right now, it's working with schools in Springdale, Fayetteville, Decatur and Elkins.
Those schools were chosen because the principals and the faculty were responsive to the program, Nesson said, noting that schools are so busy and so overloaded with things they are required to do, that it's difficult to take on new projects from the community. He said NWA Books for Kids is a community-based, nonprofit organization.
"Schools have so much taking their concentration that something like family literacy is pretty low on their priority list," Nesson said. "It's high on mine."
Helping Disadvantaged Families
Nesson said the group's goal is to concentrate on disadvantaged families. These families are the ones who are working hard to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.
"They are the ones who are working so hard that time spent with kids really takes a back seat to the needs they are having to meet every day," Nesson said.
So NWA Books raises money to pay for meals and buy books to reach these families.
Nesson's walk is one of the major fundraisers for the organization. This was his fifth walk to raise money. In the past, he's raised money for Bright Futures and Ozark Literacy Council.
NWA Books approaches businesses and donors and asks them to sponsor the walk. The goal for last week's walk was $10,000, and Nesson said he thought he would meet that goal by the time he returned to Fayetteville.
He started at 5:30 a.m. Dec. 4, stopped in Farmington for coffee and then in Prairie Grove for lunch. He spent the night in a travel trailer outside the home of Kelly Bradley of Lincoln, a board member, and then started out for Siloam Springs the next day. He returned home the same route.
Family literacy is high on Nesson's priority list because the parent is a child's first teacher. If a parent is encouraged to make books available to their children, to read with children and help them identify letters and words early on, then those kids will be able to keep up in school, he said. They'll have confidence to keep growing and keep learning.
"That's what education is all about, really," he said.
But children who come to kindergarten not having that atmosphere at home struggle, he said.
They come to school and see books as a foreign object. Many times, these children will quickly fall behind the others in their class.
"When that happens, the kids start to feel badly about themselves and when you talk to any teacher, it's always the kids who are falling behind or starting behind who become the behavior problems," Nesson said. "'I'm not keeping up with the other kids, what am I going to do? Draw attention to myself or do something to express my frustration.' So that starts this whole other cycle for kids. All sorts of negative things happen."
Family literacy doesn't solve all the problems of poverty, Nesson said, but it's one positive strategy to help a family.
Parents holding a baby in their hands are not thinking, 'well, this kid has to learn to read,' he said. But he pointed out there are many ways parents can help their children as babies and toddlers, through reading to them with animated voices and with "touchy, feely" books.
"Children's brains are working so fast when they are little that with the proper nutrition and stimulation they grow into very smart, very curious, very imaginative little kids. But it takes an aware parent to bring that into focus and that's what we are trying to do."
In addition to the Eat and Read programs, NWA Books for Kids has a home library program, tutoring program and collects and donates gently-used books to non-profit organizations that serve low-income families.
As the organization grows and raises more money, he said he hopes more schools in the four-county area in this part of the state will be interested in its programs for family literacy.
For more information about the organization, contact Nesson at [email protected] Donations for the walk are still being taken. Look for Nesson's account through www.gofundme, walk for kids.General News on 12/25/2019