Leading the way for Literacy

Published 10:02am Wednesday, November 13, 2013

California uses third-grade literacy rates to determine where future prisons will be needed. It’s this type of backwards problem-solving that has driven several local women to get proactive and ensure every child in Otter Tail County has access to books.

“The Women’s Leadership Council is a national affiliate of the United Way, and it’s something I was interested in having as part of our United Way since we have such strong women leaders in our community,” said United Way of Otter Tail County director Mary Phillipe.

Beginning April of 2011, the council set its sights on improving childhood literacy in Otter Tail County.

“We did a lot of planning and talking about what we wanted to do,” said committee chairwoman Marsha Erickson. “We looked at where local schools were with school readiness rates and how our children in Otter Tail County were doing, and we really fell back to children’s literacy. If you can provide children with the ability to read, it impacts their entire life.”

The council is currently working on three primary projects. Buddy Book Bins, Prescription for Reading and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library all focus on getting books in the hands of local children.

“We have red bins all over the county where we are looking for new or lightly used children’s books up to a third-grade reading level,” Phillipe said. “If anyone is cleaning out closets or bookshelves, it’s a great place to drop them off and donate them.”

These red bins, now known as “Buddy Book Bins,” are placed in locations where kids and parents might find themselves waiting around. Kids are welcome to take a book to borrow or keep, and all are encouraged to donate books to keep the bins stocked. Books can be donated straight to the bins or dropped off at the United Way office in Fergus Falls.

Prescription for Reading is another way the Women’s Leadership Council gets books to children. Each time a child goes into the doctor for a checkup, he or she will leave with a book.

“We’re thanked by a lot from physicians and nurses,” said executive committee member Tammy Stanislawski. “They love the program.”

Lake Region HealthCare LPN Jill Geary said “The Prescription for Reading program is the only way some children in the county can own books.”

The Dolly Parton Imagination Library provides a book every month from birth to age five for registered children. Registration is free for all children in Otter Tail County born on or after Jan. 1, 2013. The United Way offered this program several years ago, but it was discontinued in 2008 due to lack of funding. The Women’s Leadership Council is dedicated to bringing this program back.

“We are off to a good start with the program, but it needs to be sustained,” said Phillipe. “Typically there are around 600 births in Otter Tail County each year. As more children are born, more funds will be needed.”

The council has several fundraising events coming up including a Little Black Dress and Tie Affair May 1, 2014 at the Bigwood Event Center to raise money for Dolly Parton Imagination Library and Family Bingo at the VFW November 3, starting at 3 p.m. to help fund the Prescription for Reading program.

“A book is so much more than the words it contains,” said Erickson. “It’s the cuddle time with the parent and children. It’s hearing the parent reading the words and developing the language and the parent touch and closeness.”

The need for programs like these in the community is never-ending, so help from more women is always appreciated. The council is open to all women in Otter Tail County who give to the United Way at a leadership level. The council meets quarterly, and the executive committee meets monthly.

“You really feel like you are doing something,” said Stanislawski. “We keep meetings pretty precise, but we have plenty of good food. We laugh a lot and always support each other.”

While the primary focus of the local Women’s Leadership Council is on improving childhood literacy, there is far more to the council than raising money and collecting books. It is important for women to take a lead role in giving because it is usually the women who determines transfer of wealth, said Erickson.

“After a couple goes through life, it is often the woman who is left to determine where to leave the legacy,” Erickson said. “Women tend to give to things that impact children, and it is often up to the woman to decide where the wealth will fall to the next generation.”

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