As Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy starts its fifth year of operation in Columbus, I reflect back on the past four years since we formed our Muscogee County Community Action Team and began to send books monthly to area children.
The mission of Ferst Foundation -- encouraging parents to read to very young children, and providing them with the books to do so -- is increasingly being supported by research. One recent scientific study explains why it is so critical for young children from low-income families to develop these early literacy skills.
In a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, neurobiologists provided scientific support of the widely held view that the number of words heard in the first three years of life affects academic success and intelligence later in life. The researchers used tracking methods to show that children from lower socio-economic status families hear 30 million fewer total words by age 3 than their peers in higher socio-economic status families.
Brain scans were performed on the children in the study to determine the impact of words heard. Two areas of the brain that impact language understanding and language expression showed significant differences based on the words heard count. For children who hear more words early in life, these areas of the brain are larger than in those children that hear fewer words. This difference in brain development is seen as early as 18 months of age. Knowing that a child's brain is 95 percent formed by the age of 3, if this deficit is not addressed early in life, the child is faced with a lifelong challenge of simply not having enough brain capacity to function at a level equivalent to his or her peers who hear more words in those first few years of life.
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As we look at this past year in Muscogee County, we are very pleased with the impact we have made on many young children in our community. We are making a difference in our city.
We currently have more than 2,500 children up to age 5 receiving books on a monthly basis, while there are 5,000 children under 5 living in poverty in Columbus. Over 60 percent of low-income families have no suitable reading materials in their homes for their children.
Since our start in Muscogee County, we have mailed more than 85,000 total books to local children. This past year, our nearly 1,000 newly registered children have predominantly come from Benning Hills Head Start, WIC (Women, Infants, Children) through the local Health Department, and Regional Pediatrics, which sees a large percentage of Medicaid patients.
We couldn't have been successful in supporting these 2,500 children without the financial support of the more than 100 individuals who made gifts from $25 to $2,500, and our major donors: Aflac Foundation, CarMax Foundation, Daniel P. Amos Foundation, John P. & Dorothy S. Illges Family Foundation, Walter Alan Richards Foundation, Sam's Club, Childcare Network, and St. Luke School's Chapel Change Program.
As we look further into 2016, we understand how critical it is to have parent engagement to make the biggest impact on these young children's chances for success. The Muscogee County Ferst Foundation is developing plans to actively interact with the parents of children living in poverty to help educate the parents on the importance of their regular verbal engagement with their young children. Ferst Foundation mails literacy-related activities in our parent newsletter to encourage parents to spend quality time with their children, developing their literacy skills, in addition to mailing books for their children.
We see our mission as critical to the future success of our community. At $36 per year to sponsor one child for one year of books, 12 books, we thank those of you who have embraced our mission and helped make it successful.
There is no more important mandate for the future of our community than the early education of our children. Many other social issues will be solved if our children enter school confident in their ability to succeed. This starts in the home! As a retired teacher and school administrator, I wanted to continue to be part of the solution to this pressing need. Books must be in the home, parents must read to their children from birth, and meaningful conversations must take place between parents and their young children. Seems logical and simple -- but it's not happening in all the homes in our community where young minds are just beginning to develop.
We can change this. Please join me in support of the Muscogee County Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy. I promise your support will make a difference in our community. We hope more citizens of our area will consider supporting us as one of their favored charities. For more information or to make a donation, visit: www.ferstfoundation.org.
Ann McDuffie, a former teacher and principal in the Muscogee County School District, is also a retired headmaster of St. Luke School.