This article is part of an occasional feature focusing on literacy organizations and the work they do to promote reading within their communities.

Life in New York has its challenges—all the more so if a New Yorker is lacking literacy skills. With the Big Apple’s growing diversity, programs supplying English-language learning and literacy courses are in high demand. Responding to that need is Literacy Partners, which began in 1975 as a chapter of Literacy Volunteers of America, and has gone on to serve thousands of New Yorkers throughout the city’s five boroughs. Emily Harting, director of development and communications at Literacy Partners, and Katie Ly, special projects manager for the organization, recently spoke with PW about the nonprofit as well as its home library program, Books of Their Own.

For Harting, the most gratifying aspect of her work is seeing the tangible results of her efforts. The impact of Literacy Partners is a multi-generational one: Literacy Partners teams with early childhood education programs—most frequently, Head Start—to offer free English, literacy, and high school education courses for low-income and immigrant adults.

Holding the courses for parents in the same locations where their children are going to school is not only a convenience, but establishes a strong sense of community learning for families. In addition to teaching literacy skills within their courses, Literacy Partners classes also focus on child development and parenting. This includes an emphasis on the importance of parents reading to their kids at home. That’s where the Books of Their Own program comes in. At the locations where both kids and their parents attend class, the organization also holds book distribution events, offering quality, diverse children’s books for families to select and keep.

Each year, Books of Their Own supplies 15 books per child in a given household, so that they may begin building their own home libraries. By reading to their children at home, parents not only help their children become stronger readers, but they develop their own skills as well. The home libraries hold particular significance, as many of the adult students served by Literacy Partners grew up in households without books themselves, Harting explained.

To obtain the picture books that they supply to these families, Books of Their Own partners with publishing houses that include Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Macmillan, Simon Schuster, HarperCollins, Sleeping Bear, Penguin Random House, and Hachette; the program also accepts book donations from other sources. Harting considers having access to reading material to be of paramount importance; literacy impacts all aspects of an individual’s life, from employability to navigating public transportation: “I see literacy as a civil rights issue,” she said. “Being able to read is everything; it provides the opportunity to be inspired and is one of the key ways to develop empathy.”

Student success is also quantifiable. According to the Literacy Partners web site, “children of our students made an average of 67% more progress on early childhood development assessments compared to their Head Start classmates.” Ly commented that, “we find our parents read 50% more to their children than they did before [taking classes] and that their children read independently, and reach for books, far more often.”

Harting shared the story of one adult student, Leobardo, who came to Literacy Partners in his 30s to take high school equivalency classes. Taking to heart the program’s focus on the value of family read-alouds, Leo was “determined to read with his two children for 20 minutes every day.” As a result of his commitment to reading with his children, his son Jonathan’s own reading ability went up three grade levels; he, in turn, began also reading to his younger sister Hallie. It’s a story that Ly and Harting see again and again through Literacy Partners—families “passing on the love of reading” to others.

Ly described the powerful impact of watching parents select books for their children: “On book distribution days, it’s so moving. Reactions from parents are really beautiful. Everybody deserves the chance to have that wonder,” she said.

And participants in the program find Books of Their Own effective as well. A Bronx student named Dora commented that, “My daughter, who is in Head Start, is benefiting because of the books. She likes to read during the day to me and my [one-year-old] son. I feel proud of myself as both my daughter and I are benefiting. I thank the program.” Sari Barocas, ESOL teacher and site coordinator, also described watching students develop their skills and become enthusiastic about books: “It is gratifying to help others accomplish more than they initially thought they could, especially when you know that their accomplishment is making the lives of their own children, as well as other children, so much better,” Barocas said.

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