Note: This story is part of a continuing series on local United Way agencies.
For more than 16 years as a media-center specialist, Debra Chester played a critical role in the reading education of hundreds of Bulloch County youngsters.
In that time, the recently retired educator says she developed a passion for one local program that has done more for area students than she, or any one person, could ever imagine.
“What I saw during my 16 years was a total, absolute love for the Statesboro Regional Library’s Reading Is Fundamental program from both parents and children,” Chester said. “I can’t even begin to talk about how important it is. It’s truly vital.”
The Reading Is Fundamental, or RIF, program, under the umbrella of Library Literary Services at Statesboro Regional Library, is an effort by library staff to spur and foster an interest in reading for more than 6,000 students in its five-county service area.
The program attempts to familiarize students with reading, through annual book giveaways and community programs — puppet shows, speakers and more.
According to Chester, RIF is an invaluable asset for area schools.
“I began working at Mattie Lively Elementary School having never conducted a (Reading Is Fundamental) program and knowing nothing about it,” Chester said. “When library staff first brought the free books in to kids, it was like total chaos. The children went crazy. They loved it.”
Chester said she saw the same reaction year-in and year-out.
“This program makes such a huge difference in the schools and to the education of children in Bulloch County,” she said. “There is nothing better than seeing a child’s face when they learn to read or can read a book to you. As an educator, it is thrilling. And, I have had parent after parent tell me how wonderful it is.”
Elaine McDuffie, the library’s youth and family services director, said Reading Is Fundamental is currently in its 34th year in Bulloch County.
During the more than three decades, the amount of students educated and provided for is staggering.
“Every single pre-k, kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade student in Bulloch County Schools is affected by this program,” McDuffie said. “Each of those kids gets free books several times a year and is encouraged to read through fun programs hosted periodically.”
The reason for maintaining the program, which has given away more than half a million books in 34 years, is simple, she said.
“Reading is a primary skill,” McDuffie said. “You have to able to read to do anything in today’s world.”
Chester said she witnessed, firsthand, the difference made in her students’ lives.
“Mattie Lively was a school that dealt with a high percentage of students with a lower socioeconomic status. So, for a lot of the kids who got books, the books may have been the only ones received during the entire year. They would cherish those books,” Chester said. “It really developed within them a love for reading. It also improved their reading skills. We saw such gains in reading scores and improvement in verbalizing skills.
“Reading is the foundation for everything that you do. That is what makes this cause so important,” she said.
So impressed was Chester that, in retirement, she plans to volunteer time and effort to assist with the program.
“I was just really amazed at the things the library did and how the program was carried out,” she said. “Also, how well the children responded to it.”
In addition to RIF, Statesboro Regional Library’s Library Literary Services also maintains an adult reading program.
Library staff train and certify volunteers as tutors, who then work one-on-one with adult members of the community “who either don’t read at all or need assistance in reading better,” McDuffie said.
The adult program serves between 30 and 40 individuals each year.
Funding for Library Literary Services is provided, in part, at the federal level from donations by Macy’s and other contributors.
A majority of funds are provided locally, through private donors and allocations from the United Way of Southeast Georgia.
“All of the funding for the adult program comes from United Way and a portion for Reading is Fundamental,” McDuffie said. “It is critical for the support of these programs.”
The United Way of Southeast Georgia recently conducted its 2012-13 fundraising campaign, which kicked off in September. The organization accepts contributions year-round.
Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454