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Whatever happened to RIF?
Congress cut funding for free kids books 4 years ago
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Federal funding to Reading Is Fundamental had already been slashed when Langston Chapel Elementary School kindergarten teacher Cindy Bozeman read to her students in this April 2013 RIF distribution at Statesboro Regional Library. Local donations and other sources kept the program going. - photo by FILE PHOTO

A reader called the newspaper recently asking what had become of the RIF distribution from the Statesboro Regional Library.

Although the library has continued to distribute books free to children and calls this RIF, the library has not received any national Reading Is Fundamental money in several years. As part of budget cuts in 2011, Congress eliminated appropriations to RIF, which had received $24.8 million that year. Reading Is Fundamental continues as a national nonprofit organization but is a shadow of its former self. It provided almost 1.9 million books nationwide in 2014, compared to more than 10 million books annually in the past.

“The RIF program was a national program that’s no longer funded, but we as a library are trying to keep it going in some kind of fashion,” said Cindy Hatchell, new youth and family services manager at the regional library’s Statesboro location. “We’re working on possibly renaming it, but we’re still trying to work out all the specifics.”

Hatchell started in August in the job formerly held by Elaine McDuffie, whose name had become synonymous with RIF in Bulloch County.

A Statesboro Herald story in March about McDuffie’s retirement after 30 years with the library, and 27 years as its RIF coordinator, noted that over the decades, the program had provided about 250,000 books to local children. Some earlier stories put the figure at nearly 500,000 books over the library’s service area.

During 2013, the program was presenting books to about 6,000 prekindergarten through second-grade students in five counties, according to two stories published that spring. Statesboro’s program, then in its 34th year, had recently been selected as one of the nation’s Top 25 RIF programs.

But one of the 2013 stories also quoted McDuffie saying that local funding had become more important because of federal cuts. At that time, local funding was coming from the United Way, parent-teacher organizations, Friends of the Library and civic groups.

 

Shifting emphasis

In a recent interview, Statesboro Regional Library Director Jennifer Durham emphasized that the library is still distributing free books to children through various programs. But she acknowledged that a fall RIF distribution did not occur this year.

Traditionally, children came to the library for the spring distribution, but the library sent books to the schools in the fall.

“This year, what happened with Elaine’s retirement and other staff turnover and us trying to get all these new staff on board is we just didn’t have the resources to do this fall distribution,” Durham said.

But the library has been creating new children’s programs and adding book distributions to some of its existing events, Durham said.

“We distributed a lot of books this summer as part of Summer Reading,” she said. “We had tables of books out so that when the children came back and returned their folder, they got to choose a book. We had distributions during our bigger programs every month.”

For example, the Halloween program, on a Saturday, was attended by about 50 people, and each child chose a book to keep, Durham said. A book was also included in each of Santa’s gift bags for children at Breakfast with Santa. About 75 children had signed up for that, Hatchel said.

“So we have had distributions along, but they have not been that massive packaging up of the books and delivering them out to the schools,” Durham said.

“As far as the future goes, not getting the matching funds from the federal government does hurt,” she said. “But Bulloch County has always been very supportive as far as making private donations. A lot of the PTOs and other civic organizations would make donations to the RIF fund.”

With last year’s budget, the Statesboro Regional Library also shifted its United Way grant for literacy programs from buying books to paying a salary, according to Durham.

“Because there was so much more competition for programs that just distributed books to children, we changed the emphasis of our United Way grant to paying for a position that would focus on programming to youth,” she said.

One of the other organizations that supports book distributions is FirstBook, not to be confused with the similar sounding Ferst Foundation, which mails books to preschool children’s homes.  McDuffie obtained a FirstBook grant that has supplied thousands of children’s books to the library, Durham said.  Unlike RIF, which let local people choose the books, FirstBook sends pre-selected books.

Statesboro Regional Library has not been alone in keeping the RIF name without the funding for its local distributions.

“Nationwide, people have hoped that one day RIF would have federal funding restored,” Durham said. “It’s been such a long-running program in the United States and has had such a strong impact, and there’s a lot of recognition behind that name, so people have been really reluctant all over the United States at schools and libraries to give up the RIF name.”

 

OK with RIF national

Jon Purves, public relations specialist for Reading Is Fundamental, based in Washington, D.C., said it has no problem with local organizations that no longer receive RIF funding continuing to use the name.

“Ultimately, it’s up to them,” he said. “We certainly wouldn’t come in and tell anybody what names they could or could not use. I mean, the most important thing, for us, rather than the name is the book distribution itself.”

Reading Is Fundamental now relies mainly on corporate and individual giving, Purves said. Macy’s is its largest corporate partner, and others are identified at www.rif.org.

“So we still continue our distributions but, yes, to be honest with you, they are lower than they were, say, 10 years ago before we lost the federal funding,” Purves said.

He had begun the interview with an upbeat answer, that RIF still exists as “a literacy nonprofit” and distributed more than 1.8 million books nationwide last year.

Since its founding in 1966, Reading Is Fundamental has distributed more than 412 million books to children. But at the rate of the 1,876,000 RIF books distributed in 2014, it would need 220 more years to equal the past 49 years’ total.

The funding peaked around 2004, Purves said. According to a Nov. 25 column by Frank Bruni in the New York Times, RIF in its peak year distributed about 17 million books.

RIF did receive $3.26 million from a U.S. Department of Education program in 2013 and $5.15 million from the same program in 2014, according to RIF’s annual report. But the organization spent more than it received in total support and revenue both years, for a $2.2 million loss in 2013 and an $853,000 loss on total spending of $21.6 million in 2014.

Locally, Statesboro Regional Library may continue using the RIF name or find a new one, Durham said. But she wants the program to be associated more closely with the library, bringing children there for a longer visit when they receive books in the spring.

“We would like for the RIF program to become more synonymous with the library and that the emphasis not just be to distribute books in bulk throughout the county but to give the teachers and the children an opportunity to have a more personal library visit,” Durham said.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

 

 

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