Nonprofit nurtures reading in kids

By Todd Cohen

CARY, N.C. — On different evenings once a week during the school year, a total of 500 children ages five to 11 who are students in Wake County public schools spend an hour or more enjoying a meal and then listening to stories, reading aloud and getting three books to take home and keep for personal libraries they are building.

The after-school literacy program, which serves another 100 kids during the summer, takes place either in one of three “mobile classrooms,” or in schools or at community centers or nonprofits.

Providing the after-school literacy program is Read and Feed, a Cary nonprofit that has served over 650 children since it was formed in 2007.

“Being able to read at grade level is a predictor of success and high school graduation,” says Kati Mullan, executive director of Read and Feed. “If you can read, you can do anything.”

The nonprofit works to provide easy access to reading programs for at-risk, low-income children who typically are reading at least one grade level below their grade in school.

“But the reality is, they’re often further behind,” says Mullan, who joined Read and Feed in 2011 as program and volunteer coordinator and in 2014 succeeded founder Jan Frantz as executive director.

Operating with an annual budget of $400,000 and a staff of two people working full-time and one working half-time, Read and Feed counts on 425 active volunteers who provide a total of over 7,700 hours a year of service.

Volunteers handle tasks that range from tutoring, driving the nonprofit’s three mobile classrooms that once were recreational vehicles, and delivering food and supplies to the program sites.

They also sort and distribute the 33,000 books Read and Feeds gives to kids each year, as well as helping to run the organization, and raising money. In the school year just ended, Read and Feed volunteers drove a total 8,250 miles.

This past school year, Read and Feed served 10 sites with its mobile classrooms, and another eight sites in facilities of partner organizations, such as the SAS Community Learning Center of Communities in Schools of Wake County in the Kentwood neighborhood and the Zebulon Club of the Boys & Girls Clubs in Wake County.

Each mobile classroom offers two one-hour sessions each evening for 12 children per session, and each facility-based program offers weekly sessions lasting an hour to 75 minutes for about 24 children.

Each session begins with a meal either purchased at a discount from the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle or donated or sold at a discount by a local restaurant.

Then the children spend about 35 minutes listening to stories read by volunteer tutors, who also provide help with reading and spelling, and reading aloud.

As a tool for the volunteers at each of its sites and mobile classrooms, Read and Feed keeps a folder for each child that includes notes on the child’s progress as well as checklists completed by the child’s classroom teacher on particular challenges such as vocabulary or sight-reading.

According to a survey of their public school teachers, 88 percent of students who participate in Read and Feed have increased their reading skills and confidence, Mullan says.

Read and Feed counts on contributions to operate, as well as two fundraising events each fall that last year netted a total of $47,000 and this years aim to raise $70,000.

When she joined the nonprofit in 2011 as its only paid employee, it operated at seven sites and had just purchased its second van. In 2014, it  was operating at 17 sites and purchased its third van.

Now Read and Feed is considering expanding more, possibly to other counties.

“Our program is so much more than a reading program or reading comprehension program,” says Mullan. “It’s a nurturing and mentoring program.”

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