Ferst Readers reaching children in poverty in Columbus

By Donna O. Kemp

Special to the Ledger-Enquirer


Nearly one-third of all children in Columbus live below the poverty line. So many of the children in our community grow up in poverty, in unsafe conditions, and with little hope of a better life beyond what they experience on a daily basis.

There are many organizations in Columbus that are doing tremendous work to alleviate the food, housing, and literacy challenges of our children. Most are called on to provide counseling, remediation, or shelter after a child has exhibited destructive or at-risk behavior. As a retired principal, I spent my professional career trying to lead young people toward a better future which began with a better education. And as our school superintendent, Dr. David Lewis, has said many times, our schools cannot do it alone.

One organization I am proud to serve is Ferst Readers, previously known as the Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy. I was introduced to Ferst Readers when I served as the treasurer of the Muscogee Retired Educators Association. Ferst Readers started in 2000 and now functions in 84 Georgia counties and other states. In Muscogee County, we started our operation in 2012 and, as we approach our seventh year of operation, we have accomplished remarkable results for our children.

Ferst Readers mails free books and parent support materials to children and their families in Muscogee County on a monthly basis for our young people from birth to age 5. The reason our focus is on children from birth to 5-years-old is this is a critical time in a child’s life to learn the basics of literacy before he or she begins formal schooling. Our focus is to provide books to children and their families who live in poverty and may not have other reading materials in their homes and we do so with the help of our Department of Public Health and Head Start conducting registrations. While our focus is on children in poverty, our books are available to any child in Muscogee County under the age of five.

Since 2012, we have mailed more than 150,000 books to 6,760 children in Columbus, Georgia. We have “graduated” 2,464 children who turned 5-years-old and started kindergarten. There are currently 2,973 children receiving books from Ferst Readers on a monthly basis. To put that number in context, there are approximately 15,000 children in Columbus under 5-years-old with one-third of those children living in poverty. That means that Ferst Readers is serving more than half the children in poverty in our community.

There are numerous studies to support the value of our mission:

  • Children growing up in homes with at least 20 books get three years more of schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. — Evans, Md., Kelley, J., Sikora, J., &Treiman, D.J.
  • By the age of 2, children who are read to regularly display greater language comprehension, larger vocabularies, and higher cognitive skills than their peers. — Raikes, H. Pan, BA, et.al.
  • More than 60 percent of children living in poverty do not have any suitable reading materials in their homes. — Reading Literacy in the United States: Findings from the IEA Reading Literacy Study.

Ferst Readers was able to accomplish so much for the children of Muscogee County in 2017. A special thank you to the generous and continued support of more than 165 donors , The United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley, The Bradley-Turner Foundation, The John P. and Dorothy S. Illges Foundation, The Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley, The Daniel P. Amos Family Foundation, Aflac, Georgia Power, Synovus, Columbus Water Works, Childcare Network, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It only takes $36 a year to support one child with a year’s worth of books and parent support materials. Please join us in trying to make a difference in the life of a child. Visit http://www.ferstfoundation.org to learn more or to donate.

Education is the light that can give children hope for a better future and better opportunities. Education starts in the home, before a child enrolls in school. Providing books to our at-risk children and their families is the Ferst way to make a difference in a child’s life.

Donna O. Kemp is a retired Muscogee County teacher and principal.