Helping kids become ‘forever free’
Waldorf resident tackles literacy issues with free books, starting in Charles County
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
Waldorf resident Dylan Meyers, 3, picks free books from Tanya Barnett’s Forever Free Books event in Charles County.