For the first time in more than three years, a Reading is Fundamental program will give children in Bulloch County elementary schools their choice of a book to keep, and a puppet show, as well.
The new RIF distribution, for first-grade only, will begin Wednesday at Portal Elementary School. Volunteers from the Family Literacy Initiative, a local nonprofit community-based organization, are scheduled to conduct on-site RIF events for first-graders at 12 public and private schools in Bulloch County from Jan. 9 through Feb. 15.
“For this year's RIF distribution we chose first grade because that's when most children's reading skills are just emerging and having reading materials at that point is so important,” wrote Elaine McDuffie, director of the Family Literacy Initiative.
She has hopes, but no funding yet, to extend RIF distributions to two additional elementary grades in future years. The first-grade distribution was made possible by a specific $3,000 gift from a local person, McDuffie said in a phone interview Friday.
“That’s really all it took to buy the books, and I’ve been able to get volunteers from other organizations to help with programming,” she said. “Again deputies from the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office will be at each location to help with the books and to be there with the children and interact with them.”
RIF’s storied past
For more than 35 years, through at least two generations, RIF brought books and fun presentations, such as storybook-based puppet shows, to children in Bulloch and surrounding counties. Almost half a million books were distributed to area children from 1979 until the local program ended in 2015, by McDuffie’s estimate.
Congress eliminated federal funding to RIF in 2011, four years before Statesboro Regional Library halted its RIF distributions.
2015 was also the year that McDuffie retired as the regional library’s youth and family services coordinator. She and other volunteers then founded the Family Literacy Initiative, based at the Bulloch County Outreach Center with McDuffie as the only staff member.
The United Way has provided general funding for the initiative, which from the first offered tutoring for adults. With assistance from Sheriff’s Office employees, Family Literacy Initiative also distributes dictionaries free to 1,000 third-graders each year.
“But this year we’re so excited to be doing RIF for a thousand first-graders,” McDuffie said.
A new approach
In cooperation with the schools, the Family Literacy Initiative is taking a different approach to RIF distributions than the library-based events of past years. Volunteers will bring the books and puppets to the schools instead of having the children come to them.
“It will be held on-site at the schools rather than at a central location, and really it’s better for the schools that way because transportation is always such a big issue,” McDuffie said.
The RIF schedule lists a Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office deputy, corporal or sergeant helping at each school during the first-grade distribution. Meanwhile, four other volunteers and McDuffie are slated to take turns as puppeteers.
Parents or other school volunteers who want to help with RIF distributions should contact the individual school to make arrangements with the principal or designated volunteer coordinator, McDuffie said.
At its peak, the former library-based program presented books to 6,000 children across five counties three times a year. McDuffie said she feels certain that the new, donor-supported effort will never reach that size, but she would like to see annual distributions to local children in kindergarten, first and second grades.
Today, with no federal funding, RIF exists at the national level as “a voice for children’s literacy,” McDuffie said. It also provides a recognizable name for free book distributions that let children choose books to keep. She spells it Reading is FUNdamental, with “fun” in capital letters.
“I focus so much on the fun of it because that’s what we do with the programming,” McDuffie said. “The books are important, of course, but it’s also about showing kids how much fun reading can be, and relating reading with fun at an early age.”
All nine elementary schools in the Bulloch County Schools public system plus private Bulloch Academy, Bible Baptist Christian Academy and Trinity Christian School are scheduled for the 2019 first-grade RIF distribution.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.