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There are literacy advocacy villages everywhere, filled with educators who advocate for and create readers.

More than a passion project, literacy advocacy takes a village


There are advocacy villages everywhere, filled with educators who advocate for and create readers

Key points:

The most effective advocacy programs often begin with a personal passion to make a difference.

When former National School Library Program of the Year librarian Marge Cox retired, she began volunteering at Youth Haven, a shelter designed to help abused and neglected children and teens in Southwest Florida. “I got involved with Youth Haven after a former Collier County Public Schools employee contacted me and said Youth Haven needed my skill set,” Cox told me. “They had boxes of books that had been donated to them and wanted to create a library. I had retired at the end of the 2020 school year and had been praying for God to show me my next adventure.”

Youth Haven had boxes of donated books but no centralized collection. So, Cox began organizing the books into a library and established a Makerspace for the students at Youth Haven. “The youth who are there have had a difficult life and Youth Haven provides a safe environment for them. I appreciate that I can play a small part in their lives, by helping them have easy access to books and activities. Books and youth are my passion, because I believe literate people are better citizens, happier individuals, and more of an asset to their communities.”

Speaking of committing retirement to getting books in the hands of learners of all ages, former Wisconsin school librarian Susy Siel has built 12 libraries on Eleuthera Island in The Bahamas. Siel visited the out islands with her parents for decades and discovered first-hand the need, like in many rural communities, for high-quality libraries stocked with current books and new computers. 

So, Siel took matters into her own hands and created Freedom to Read, Inc. “Our mission is to change lives through free access to literacy,” Siel said. “I have witnessed the power that the availability of books and computers/internet have on people’s lives. By advocating for literacy here in The Bahamas we can foster a better sense of community, while simultaneously assisting individuals to reach their goals… whether personal or in the workforce. When people can seek and find information, they are empowered. Their voice is elevated. Their ability to make changes in policy, law and their own lives is enhanced.”

Whether it’s individuals with a passion project or organizations that exist exclusively to help connect students with books, it takes a village to advocate for literacy. Recently, Follett Content Solutions partnered with Amazon in the Community to deliver 5,500 books to students in the greater Seattle area. And in conjunction with PageAhead, another Seattle-based children’s literacy program, we’ve delivered as many as 150,000 books to kids each year for the past few years, many from low-income families, to help promote summer reading and build home libraries.

Between Seattle, Naples, and the Bahamas, there are advocacy villages everywhere, filled with educators like Hannah Irion-Frake, a third-grade teacher in Pennsylvania who spends her career advocating for and creating readers. “I provide training for teachers in my district in science-based literacy practices,” Irion-Frake said. “Teachers with deep knowledge about best practices for literacy are better equipped to make a difference for their students. And there is no greater accomplishment, in my opinion, than teaching a child to read.”

Teaching students to read happens in the classroom and library every day. It happens through community and business partnerships. It happens through full time jobs or second acts in life. 

In 2010, when I came to work for the family business for my second career act, I put on a new hat as the president of the Follett Educational Foundation. While the Foundation still issues scholarships, this year we are piloting a program to help Native American students in the Chicagoland area build their home libraries. The National School Board Association reports that population of students performed two to three grade levels below their white peers in reading and math.

This issue is close to the heart of 4th generation Follett family member Steve Waichler, whose family adopted Native children and made a significant contribution to the Foundation with a focus on improving literacy outcomes for Native American students. Waichler says, “Personally, I think of this a memorial fund for my sister, Leslie, who died when she was two years old. She was the first of my Native Sisters, and we wouldn’t have the large, blended family we have today, if she hadn’t died. We want this gift to honor the Native half of our family.”

Literacy advocacy can come in many shapes and sizes. Yolanda Williams, a sixth-grade teacher in Atlanta, Georgia says, “I advocate literacy for every student in my program by creating literacy lessons that encompass strong phonics instruction, vocabulary, independent reading, teacher-led small groups, and differentiated instruction. Literacy is not coloring, worksheets, and workbooks. Literacy is an engaging and a hands-on experience.” 

As community members and literacy advocates, we all can provide students with this foundation for a lifetime of learning.

Cox says, “My parents were educators and I remembered they had used their retirement to continue to positively impact the community. I believe educators help society and I wanted to do something in my retirement that made a difference for others. I just didn’t know what that would look like.”

What does it look like for you?

As for the Follett Educational Foundation’s Native American student literacy program, we too are still figuring out exactly what that’s going to look like. We have big dreams of building school libraries in tribal schools. But we’re starting with a smaller project this spring, where we will deliver 120 backpacks of age-appropriate Native language books to kindergarten through 12th grade students in Chicago.  

Established in the 1960s, the Follett Educational Foundation has issued millions of dollars in college scholarships to the students of Follett team members. Now that the Follett family no longer owns the businesses, the trustees of the Foundation are transitioning the Foundation to its next act … literacy… which is wholly in line with the legacy of our family business. While the Foundation still issues scholarships in memory of the founding four Follett brothers, this year we are piloting a program to help Native American students in the Chicagoland area build their home libraries.

The Nation’s Report Card began to sound the alarm about the academic underperformance of American Indian and Alaska Native students in 1994. Today, the National School Board Association reports that population of students performed two to three grade levels below their white peers in reading and math. This issue is close to the heart of 4th generation Follett family member Steve Waichler, whose family adopted Native children and made a significant contribution to the Foundation with a focus on improving literacy outcomes for Native American students. Waichler says, “Personally, I think of this a memorial fund for my sister, Leslie, who died when she was 2 years old. She was the first of my Native Sisters, and we wouldn’t have the large, blended family we have today, if she hadn’t died. We want this gift to honor the Native half of our family as well as our Follett legacy.”

The most effective advocacy programs often begin with a personal story like the Waichler family’s inspiration. When former National School Library Program of the Year librarian Marge Cox retired, she began volunteering at Youth Haven, a shelter designed to help abused and neglected children and teens in Southwest Florida. “I got involved with Youth Haven after a former Collier County Public Schools employee contacted me and said Youth Haven needed my skill set,” Cox told me. “They had boxes of books that had been donated to them and wanted to create a library. I had retired at the end of the 2020 school year and had been praying for God to show me my next adventure.”

Youth Haven had boxes of donated books but no centralized collection. So, Cox began organizing the books into a library and established a Maker Space for the students at Youth Haven. “The youth who are there have had a difficult life and Youth Haven provides a safe environment for them. I appreciate that I can play a small part in their lives, by helping them have easy access to books and activities. Books and youth are my passion, because I believe literate people are better citizens, happier individuals, and more of an asset to their communities.”

Speaking of committing retirement to getting books in the hands of learners of all ages, former Wisconsin school librarian Susy Siel has built twelve libraries on Eleuthera Island in The Bahamas. Siel visited the out islands with her parents for decades and discovered first-hand the need, like in many rural communities, for quality libraries stocked with current books and new computers. 

So, Siel took matters into her own hands and created Freedom to Read, Inc. “Our mission is to change lives through free access to literacy,” Siel said. “I have witnessed the power that the availability of books and computers/Internet have on people’s lives. By advocating for literacy here in The Bahamas we can foster a better sense of community, while simultaneously assisting individuals to reach their goals… whether personal or in the workforce. When people can seek and find information, they are empowered. Their voice is elevated. Their ability to make changes in policy, law and their own lives is enhanced.”

Whether it’s individuals with a passion project or organizations that exist exclusively to help connect students with books, it takes a village. Recently, Follett Content Solutions partnered with Amazon in the Community to deliver 5,500 books to students in the greater Seattle area. And in conjunction with PageAhead, another Seattle-based children’s literacy program, we’ve delivered as many as 150,000 books to kids each year for the past few years, many from low-income families, to help promote summer reading and build home libraries.

Between Seattle, Naples, and the Bahamas there are teachers like Hannah Irion-Frake, a third-grade teacher in Pennsylvania who lives her passion project day in and day out, spending her career advocating for and creating readers. “I provide training for teachers in my district in science-based literacy practices,” Irion-Frake said. “Teachers with deep knowledge about best practices for literacy are better equipped to make a difference for their students. And there is no greater accomplishment, in my opinion, than teaching a child to read.”

Literacy advocacy can come in many shapes and sizes. Yolanda Williams, a sixth-grade teacher in Atlanta, Georgia says, “I advocate literacy for every student in my program by creating literacy lessons that encompass strong phonics instruction, vocabulary, independent reading, teacher-led small groups, and differentiated instruction. Literacy is not coloring, worksheets, and workbooks. Literacy is an engaging and hands-on experience.” 

Teaching students to read happens in the classroom and library every day. It happens through community and business partnerships. It happens through full time jobs or second acts in life. 

Cox says, “My parents were educators and I remembered they had used their retirement to continue to positively impact the community. I believe educators help society and I wanted to do something in my retirement that made a difference for others. I just didn’t know what that would look like.”

As for the Follett Educational Foundation’s Native American student literacy program, we too are still figuring out exactly what that’s going to look like. We have big dreams of building school libraries in tribal schools. But we’re starting with a smaller project this spring, where we will deliver 120 backpacks of age-appropriate Native language books to kindergarten through 12th grade students in Chicago.  

As important as it is to connect a student with a book, giving them the opportunity to choose what they are going to read is even more powerful. And as educators, each of you can help your students discover the next book they will fall in love with. As community members and literacy advocates, we too can provide students with this foundation for a lifetime of learning.

What’s your next act?

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