Help­ing kids be­come ‘for­ever free’

Wal­dorf res­i­dent tack­les lit­er­acy is­sues with free books, start­ing in Charles County

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By TIF­FANY WAT­SON twat­son@somd­news.com

For­ever Free Books has helped give away thou- sands of books to chil­dren and teens all over the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., metropoli­tan area. Thanks to Wal­dorf res­i­dent Tanya Bar­nett, the free book pro­gram con­tin­ues to im­prove the lit­er­acy of un­der­served chil­dren, es­pe­cially in Charles County.

Ac­cord­ing to Bar­nett,

CEO and founder of For­ever Free Books, sta­tis­tics show that by age 3, there is a 30 mil­lion word dis­par­ity in vo­cab­u­lary be­tween poor and wealthy chil­dren. She said these chil­dren are at a huge deficit when they start kinder­garten, and the gap widens every year. How­ever, Bar­nett hopes to re­duce this gap by pro­vid­ing them with books they choose for them­selves and want to read.

“Read­ing is ev­ery­thing. No mat­ter what the sub­ject mat- ter is, you have to know how to read. If you don’t know how to read, you are limited ca­reer-wise and in con­ver­sa­tions with ev­ery­day peo­ple be­cause you don’t have that vo­cab­u­lary,” Bar­nett said.

Bar­nett is a lover of books who ap­pre­ci­ates the sto­ries she read in her own early child­hood — “The Wiz­ard of Oz” and “Lit- tle Women” — as well as sto­ries she read in high school by Richard Wright, Maya An­gelou and W.E.B. Du Bois.

“I grew up in a house with book­cases ev­ery­where but while teach­ing in the class­room, I no­ticed that is not the norm for other chil­dren. A few years ago, I as­sumed all chil­dren had books in their homes, but many of my stu­dents did not own books and could barely read. I founded For­ever Free Books as my mis­sion to en­sure every child I come in con­tact with has the op­por­tu­nity to own a book of their choice to be­gin a home li­brary,” Bar­nett said.

Bar­nett works as a first grade sub­sti­tute teacher at Matthew Hen­son Mid­dle School. She no­ticed that many of her stu­dents did not own a book, so she made an an­nounce­ment on so­cial me­dia ask­ing friends, fam­ily and col­leagues to help do­nate 25 books to the class. Bar­nett re­ceived more than 300 books within two weeks, with three class­rooms of chil­dren be­ing able to take home sev­eral books each. The pos­i­tive re­sponse from the chil­dren gave Bar­nett the idea to be­gin a mo­bile free book pro­gram.

“The look on peo­ple’s faces when we tell them to come to the table and let their chil­dren take any book they wanted for free — is typ­i­cally a look of shock and ex­cite­ment,” said Sharon Lu­cas, mem­ber of the For­ever Free Books board of di­rec­tors. “I don’t think there is too much that we can do, es­pe­cially in the black com­mu­nity, to get our chil­dren read­ing. I think the sky is the limit in terms of run­ning an or­ga­ni­za­tion that is help­ful in get­ting read­ing ma­te­ri­als in the hands of our chil­dren.”

The mo­bile unit goes to var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties and lo­cal events to give away free chil­dren’s books to all kids — re­gard­less of so­cio-eco­nomic sta­tus — at schools and churches. Every- thing is done on a do­na­tion ba- sis in or­der to pur­chase brand new books for chil­dren and even teens. All chil­dren have an op­por­tu­nity to com­plete a book re­view when they are fin­ished read­ing, which also im­proves the stu­dents’ com­pre­hen­sion.

With the help of lo­cal cor­po­rate part­ners and spon­sors — Ki­wa­nis In­ter­na­tional, Chick­fil-A in Wal­dorf, the Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion of Charles County and the Charles County Pub­lic Li­brary Sys­tem — For­ever Free Books is able to bet­ter ad­dress the achieve­ment gap through book dis­tri­bu­tions, tu­tor­ing and story time to un­der­served chil­dren in Mary­land, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and north­ern Vir­ginia.

Clau­dia Bel­lony-Atanga, chair of the board of trustees for the Charles County Pub­lic Li­brary Sys­tem and eco­nomic re­search spe­cial­ist for Charles County Gov­ern­ment, said she was amazed when Bar­nett orig­i­nal- ly in­formed her about the free book pro­gram.

“What Tanya is do­ing with her pro­gram is open­ing up a world of lit­er­acy to un­der­served com- mu­ni­ties who may not have oth- er means . ... There are so many un­der­served kids and chil­dren in our com­mu­nity and we leave those re­sources for those who need them,” Bel­lony-Atonga said. “Early lit­er­acy is so im­port- ant for the vi­tal­ity of Charles County mov­ing for­ward and be­com­ing a pros­per­ous com­mu­nity and hav­ing a qual­ity of life. The ear­lier they are ex­posed, the bet­ter their life will be.

“What Tanya is do­ing is re­ally com­mend­able, for her to care so much about the stu­dents in the com­mu­nity,” she con­tin­ued. “I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing the pro­gram’s growth in Charles County.”

Bar­nett said many have tried to dis­cour­age her from con­tin­u­ing the pro­gram, but the neg­a­tiv­ity has only mo­ti­vated her to con­tinue to raise aware­ness about lit­er­acy needs in the re­gion. She plans to add a tu­tor­ing pro­gram to teach un­der­served chil­dren how to read and ob­tain the nec­es­sary fund­ing to pur­chase a book mo­bile to ex­pand the pro­gram.

One of Bar­nett’s fa­vorite quo­ta­tions comes from Fred­er­ick Dou­glass: “Once you learn to read, you will be for­ever free.” She said those words still ring true to­day. Twit­ter: @Tif­fIndyNews

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Wal­dorf res­i­dent Dy­lan Mey­ers, 3, picks free books from Tanya Bar­nett’s For­ever Free Books event in Charles County.

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