By Nickolaus Hines
Stacked boxes packed with children’s books fill the space between the bookshelves lining the walls of an Opelika warehouse on Fitzpatrick Road. The only indication of the inside of the warehouse is a white and blue sign hanging above the mirror glass door which reads “Jean Dean RIF” on one side and “Kiwanis” on the other.
But the warehouse is only a temporary home for the books.
The Jean Dean Reading Is Fundamental, RIF, program provides three books a year to at–risk children. It is one of the largest grassroots projects targeted toward preschool literacy, said Cathy Gafford, director at Jean Dean RIF.
President Lyndon Johnson declared The War on Poverty during his State of the Union speech in 1964. Government research showed that early education was the finger to turn the page on chronic poverty, and a bill was signed to fund Head Start programs to give preschool children of low–income families a way to meet their “emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs,” according to the Office of Head Start.
The Darden Center in Opelika is one of three head start programs in Alabama.
“Since 1991, the Opelika Kiwanis Club, with the help of many local ‘Friends of Kiwanis,’ has given close to 10,000 at–risk children over 30,000 quality, age–appropriate books through Darden Head Start and Darden Early Head Start,” Gafford wrote in an email. That number only reflects Opelika. To see the full impact of the program, multiply that by the more than 500 sites served in Alabama.
Three times a year, teachers at the Darden Head Start center in Opelika read the titles of the books purchased by Jean Dean RIF to the children. Each book is chosen on literary and artist merit and purchased in bulk at half of the retail price.
Around 30 volunteers arrive after the children have had a couple of days to pick which book is their favorite. Groups of five are formed based on which book each child chose, and the volunteer leading each group tells the children they are there because they care about the kids, and they care about reading.
Jean Dean RIF was started by Joe Dean, Gafford’s father, when he was the Alabama District of Kiwanis Governor in 1990–1991. The program was started as a part of the Kiwanis International emphasis on children from birth until five. Dean named the program after his wife, Jean Dean, who died in 1990.
The national RIF program lost a large block of federal funding during conservative budget cuts in December of 2011. Jean Dean RIF lost a third of the funding applications it had relied on to provide at–risk Alabama children books the previous 20 years.
Through donations and volunteers, Jean Dean RIF has been able to continue to provide books to the Darden Center and Covington Preschool.
A number of long–time volunteers have given their time for the nearly 25 years the program has been running. For Opelika resident Doug Vaughan, that means missing only one or two readings.
“When I was growing up, if you didn’t know how to read, you didn’t know pretty much anything,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan began volunteering because he knew Joe and Jean Dean and the Kiwanians who started the program.
“I hope it’s teaching kids how to read,” Vaughan said. “If they read then it keeps them off the street doing other things maybe, and it just shows them that someone has an interest in them and what they do.
Jean Dean RIF and local volunteers show the children that people in the community care while encouraging family literacy and helping Darden Head Start through donations and federal grant requirements, said Gafford.
“That means that we in Alabama have a heart to give children a start in education,” Gafford said.
Books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Harry and the Dirty Dog sit packed in boxes in the Jean Dean RIF warehouse. Before long, they will be in the homes of children who have been encouraged to read by local community leaders.