Community program

How a community program is helping children in Delta learn to love reading

As a speech therapist, Corrine Hegwood has long asked children what they like to read.

But it’s a question she’s been asking more often since co-founding Reading at the Park with her husband and other community members. On Saturday, they held their sixth event at Sterling-Anderson Park in Cleveland, providing books, diapers and pizza to families in attendance.

While living in Chattanooga, Corrine Hegwood noticed that the children she worked with in low-income areas were always drawn to books as rewards rather than toys. She began bringing trunks full of books to her students and their friends, and Reading at the Park grew out of this project and the need she saw in Mississippi.

In Mississippi, 32% of children were tested for kindergarten when they started school. According to the Department of Education, research shows that if a child is considered ready for kindergarten when they start school, they will be fluent in reading by the end of third grade.

Research has also shown that children living in poorer households are less likely to have access to age-appropriate books or to be read by a family member, leading to improved educational outcomes. .

“What I find is that (the kids who have trouble reading) are the ones who sit in the principal’s office, because they communicate in a different way,” Corrine Hegwood said.

Margaret Katembe’s son Johnson poses for the camera while helping her register her children for the Reading at the Park event in Cleveland, Mississippi on May 14, 2022 Credit: Julia James/Mississippi Today

Margaret Katembe, a librarian at Delta State, manned the registration table, registering children and explaining the event to parents. She met the Hegwoods through their sons-turned-friends and realized they had a shared passion for literacy that was cultivated in the Reading at the Park program.

Katembe said attendance varies depending on the size of the community visited, but overall she was pleased with the number of children who attended each event. She also noted that collaborations with other groups have been helpful in attracting visitors.

“Today I can see that the diapers have been a big hit, and when they come for the diapers, they leave with books,” Katembe said.

Once the children are registered, volunteers accompany them to the table of books for their age group and help them choose books which they bring on a blanket to read together. Corrine Hegwood pointed out that this process is about trying to help children find books that excite them and make them want to practice reading on their own.

The founders of the Reading at the Park program at their event in Cleveland, MS on May 14, 2022 (L to R: Brittany Meador, Kierre Rimmer, Margaret Katembe, Corrine Hegwood and Les Hegwood. Credit: Julia James/Mississippi Today

At last Saturday’s event, they registered over 60 children and 30 volunteers. Since they started, they have distributed about 1,500 books. So far they have mostly reached older children, which they are trying to change by partnering with Diaper Bank of the Delta.

“Zero to five is the time, it’s the window, it’s the most important time for brain development,” Corrine Hegwood said. “What they get in those first five years is an indicator of the type of reader they’ll become.”

Les Hegwood, the priest at Calvary Episcopal Church in Cleveland, saw the need for more direct service opportunities in the church. He said the congregation has been enthusiastic in supporting the Reading at the Park program, both in terms of volunteers and funding. The program also received funding from the Barksdale Reading Institute.

The Hegwoods explained that they intend to develop a list of books to buy that is representative of the community they serve in the delta.

“(The list) contains many books featuring African American characters, which are unfortunately rare on library walls and in schools,” Les Hegwood said. They wanted books that “help make it feel like ‘I am, and should be, the hero of these stories and myths that are being created in my little imagination'”.

Katembe and the Hegwoods emphasized the importance of parents and children where they are, which is why they chose to focus on neighborhood parks. They eventually hope to donate a retired expedition truck that they could turn into a “mobile library” to transport the books to different communities.

Tracy Jones said she came with her children because she lived across from the park and wanted to see what was going on. Her son, who is in grade two, enjoys reading about sports. She mainly reads picture books with her almost two-year-old daughter and said diapers were particularly useful as they can be very expensive.

“We had ‘Snuggle Puppy’, one about the zoo, and ‘Lola goes to the library,'” Jones said. “Gotta catch the tough ones or she’s gonna tear ’em up.”

Kierre Rimmer, another Reading at the Park co-founder, was introduced to the Hegwoods through his work as the founder of FLY Zone, a local youth empowerment organization that has worked with middle and high school students since 2013.

Rimmer said he saw a number of people he recognized for his work at the events, as well as many new faces.

Corrine Hegwood helps a girl choose books at the Reading at the Park event in Cleveland, Mississippi on May 14, 2022 Credit: Julia James/Mississippi Today

“Once they see me, they become more relaxed when they come to events like this,” Rimmer said. “Les and his wife are still new, so I guess you could say I’m freezing or bonding.”

Corrine Hegwood said that for the kids she meets, it’s often not a lack of interest, but a lack of access that keeps them from becoming better readers. She recalls a recent visit to Mound Bayou, where she was knocking on doors and meeting a sixth-grader.

“I said ‘Well, what do you want to read?’ and she said ‘I want to read about everything.’ I just thought, ‘I want you to be able to read about everything too.’ »

Editor’s note: Jim Barksdale, founder of the Barksdale Reading Institute, serves on the board of Mississippi Today.

— Article credit to Julia James of Mississippi Today —