In Arizona, a project for pre-schoolers is planned with a strong parent training program; nearly 3,000 children at day-care and community centers are served in Seattle; in New York City, 850 migrant children in 25 day-care centers are given support; and in Dallas, more than 45,000 youngsters in 100 schools work with volunteers weekly.
What do all of these programs have in common? They are organizations of READING IS FUNDAMENTAL (RIF), a private, non-profit corporation that helps organize projects to motivate children to read.To show youngsters reading is fun, RIF lets books carry the message. Volunteers in local proj-ects select the titles and through donated funds often matched by national grants children get to select a book and keep it. No strings attached! No reports. No assignments. The goal of RIF is to make books and reading a natural part of every child's daily experience, to make reading a way of life for America's children.
READING IS FUNDAMENTAL was started by Margy McNamara in 1966 when her husband, Robert, left Ford Motor Co. to serve in the Cabinet of President John F. Kennedy. The wives of the Cabinet members were told, ". . . I want you to become active in the communities where you live. Do the things that bring you satisfaction."
Margy McNamara, teacher and advocate for children, did just that. She started tutoring children in the District of Columbia where 20 percent of elementary children were not making proper advancement in reading. During a summer experimental program, she found that 1,200 reading-deficient children had never owned a book, nor had their parents.
She decided to give the children she tutored some adventure books that had belonged to her son. McNamara was amazed at the reaction her gifts brought. "I'll never forget the look of joy on their faces. When we went into the homes of the children, I realized, for the most part, there never had been a single piece of printed materials in the house."
Her campaign to bring books and children together began with the National Democratic Club and extended to college groups, PTAs, citizen and volunteer agencies. She developed a model coordinating school groups with foundational grants and in 1966 distributed books to 41,00 students, all at 61 District of Columbia schools where the median income level was low and children were reading below grade level.
National grants were obtained - spearheaded by the Ford Foundation - and in 1972 RIF had 55 programs in 27 states. After 20 years, "Margy's Dream" provides about 7 million books to more than 2 million children in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands. More than 90,000 volunteers work at 10,000 sites selecting books and planning for opportunities to put them into the hands of children.
Besides making books available through distribution programs, RIF produces publications and training tools for local volunteer groups such as newsletters, book lists and films that outline the program and promote reading.
Even though the projects are sponsored by a national corporation, no two groups are alike and the unique qualities of each population is taken into account. For example, the children in Guam have particular needs, interests and tastes in books that differ widely from those of North Carolina young readers.
But regardless of their differences, all RIF projects must (and do!) allow children to choose their own books from a wide variety of titles, provide book-related activities and serve all children, excluding none.
In 1974 the READING IS FUNDAMENTAL program began in Salt Lake City. "There were 45 children in one grade at one school at the start," says Wanda McDonough, current RIF coordinator. "Now, nearly 100,000 new books are distributed to 3,300 children in eight schools."
Schools waiting to get into the RIF program often initiate their own project independent of state coordinating; for example, one entire school district, seeing the advantages of having books in the hands of children, started its own book distribution program.
In 1984, Friends of the Library-USA, the national organization, honored the Salt Lake program as best in a large city area. "We know it was largely because of our RIF program," McDonough admits.
Salt Lake City Library was recently selected as one of the six sites to host a workshop sponsored by RIF.