Passionate About the Community
and the Moms Who Live Here

BEGIN WITH BOOKS: Our Local Literacy Heroes

BEGIN WITH BOOKS: Our Local Literacy Heroes

Patty with BWB recipients

On this day, Read Across America Day, we usually celebrate authors like Dr. Seuss (whose birthday was the choice for the annual reading celebration).

Today, however, I would like to celebrate a different type of literacy hero, but first here is a little background. Many of your preschool-aged children might be receiving books from BEGIN WITH BOOKS, Charleston’s branch of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. This program sends free books every month to children under age five in select zip codes in Charleston County. The greater program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, was begun by Dolly Parton as a way to get quality books into communities (starting with her home county) so that all children could learn the magic that books have to offer. The program does not discriminate based on income. Any child living in the area served is eligible. Meaning, that regardless of income, parent education level, native language, or any other difference that can affect literacy, these children all start school having read some of the same books and share some similar foundational vocabulary. 

BEGIN WITH BOOKS in Charleston

So, how did the program come to Charleston and who are the people behind BEGIN WITH BOOKS? There are two heroes bringing books to the children of the Lowcountry: Patty Bennett-Uffelman and Janet Segal. Patty and Janet teamed up in 2010 to start BWB, a branch of the Imagination Library. After gathering funding to support the program, they kicked off serving the most rural parts of the county, where access to books was the most limited. Today, the program has expanded to reach more of the urban areas with plans to add more zip codes each year.

How is the program run? Volunteers. Patty and Janet do a lot of the administrative work, but they rely on volunteers for enrolling new participants, tracking down owners of returned books, post office runs, event sign-ups, translation for parents that don’t speak English, fundraising, and more.

How is it funded? Grants, corporate and individual sponsors, and civic, faith and social groups provide the $165 it costs to fund a complete, 5-year/60 book personal library for one child.

Who are Patty and Janet, you ask? These two women don’t wear capes or have their own theme song and they haven’t written troves of magical rhyming stories. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to even find their names anywhere on the BEGIN WITH BOOKS website, but they are heroes of literacy in our community, providing young children with the opportunity to interact with books in their homes at no expense and to pique a vital interest in reading at a young age. To learn a little more about her, I asked Patty a few questions:

CMB: Why did you all choose to start BEGIN WITH BOOKS instead of some other program?

Patty: It was an alignment of the stars. At the time we started BWB, the P&C was full of stories about grade-level and literacy problems at CCSD. Janet and I both had new grandchildren, and her grandson, who lives in Tennessee, was enrolled in the Imagination Library in the hospital where he was born. Once she learned about that, we did all sorts of research on the Imagination Library and on local resources and determined that there was not a single program in the Charleston area that was providing comparable early literacy resources. All the research shows that children have to be ready to learn when they reach school, and it was/is clear that we have a huge divide between high-income children who do well in school and low-income children who start behind and stay behind. We decided that we could do something to level the playing field before children reach school.

BEGIN WITH BOOKS: Our Local Literacy Heroes

My son and I sharing a BWB selection before bed.

CMB: Who was most influential in your love for reading?

Patty: I was the youngest of three sisters, and my parents read to us all the time. I was probably hearing stories much older than my years, and I remember yearning for the next night’s chapter. I cannot remember ever feeling as secure as when I was curled up with my mother or father reading to me.

CMB: What was your favorite book as a child?

Patty: “Little House on the Prairie” by Laura Ingals Wilder and “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton are the first books I really remember. I loved them both.

CMB: What is your favorite book that BWB has distributed?

Patty: Based on feedback, “Good Night, Gorilla” by Peggy Rathmann seems to be the overwhelming favorite of our young readers, so that’s the one I’d pick.

CMB: Do you have a favorite story about how this program has influenced the community or an individual?

Patty: Pertinent to the above answer, a recent “graduate” of BWB — about 6 years old — came up to our table at a community event, picked up our display copy of “Good Night, Gorilla,” and told us that “mama had been her first word as a baby and that “gorilla” had been her second word because she listened to and loved this book so much. I think this single story says so much about the impact that reading books aloud to children has on vocabulary. Children’s books contain 30% more vocabulary value than TV or ordinary adult-child conversation. 76% of all 5 year-old children entering Tri-County public schools test as “not proficient” in vocabulary.

BEGIN WITH BOOKS: Our Local Literacy Heroes

My daughter coming from the mailbox with the newest edition to her BWB library.

CMB: What is most rewarding thing about providing books to young children?

Patty: The knowledge that we really are changing lives. It’s great that we can do something so joyful that also effortlessly expands a child’s horizon so significantly. We know that the result will be different for each child; some will get more from the program than others, but I don’t believe that a single child can participate for any length of time and not experience some significant shift that will move her forward in her life — whether it is the simple awareness that books exist and contain information, or whether it is increased learning capacity, increased vocabulary, heightened empathy, increased self-confidence, awareness of the world outside her current environment, or just plain curiosity. Any and all of these attributes mark the beginnings of a successful student and human being.

CMB: Is there anything you would like to share with the Charleston Moms Blog audience?

Patty: Reading aloud to your young child is one of the easiest and best ways to bond with your child, but it also gives your child a life-long tool for happiness and success. I’ll end with a couple of cliches: “As long as you have a book, you are not alone” and “as long as you can read, you can learn anything.” Both are priceless gifts to give your child.

BEGIN WITH BOOKS: Our Local Literacy Heroes

My children’s BWB library.

Now, what can you do?

  • If you have children under age five, sign them up here to receive the books! 
  • If your children are too old for the program, but you’d like to help, you can volunteer here
  • Perhaps you have connections to a business that would like to partner with the program and help provide books. With plans to expand, they are increasingly in need of sponsors to financially support the efforts. Click here to donate.
  • Spread the word! I am always amazed that not everyone knows about this program and how easy it is to participate. 
  • If you get a chance, please let Patty and Janet know how much you appreciate this service to our children and the greater community!
  • And, of course, read to your children every day!

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