Reading is an important part of a child’s development, but not all children have equal access to literacy. That’s why one local organization is working hard to close the literacy gap for kids here in Nevada.
Spread the Word Nevada (STWN), the state’s largest children’s literacy nonprofit, is dedicated to advancing childhood literacy in low-income communities and actively serves at-risk families who are at or below the poverty line. Founded in 2001 and nearing their 20th anniversary, the organization has helped more than 650,877 at-risk children by providing them 5.8 million books and counting, and by providing resources that fill in educational gaps and help improve literacy achievement.
Samantha Picazo, STWN’s Events and Marketing Manager, spoke of the co-founders, Laurie Hartig and Lisa Habighorst, and their inspiration for the organization and how it began.
“I have learned that a simple dream can turn into something extraordinary,” she said. “Laurie and Lisa started with a garage full of books, and now we're in a 5,000 square foot warehouse serving over half a million children since 2001.”
“[They] knew that children should not be without the magic of books and sought to change that.”
Collecting books for preschool up to the fifth-grade, STWN, with the help of their volunteers, takes the donated books, cleans them, and then sorts them by grade level. With the funds collected from generous donors, the organization is also able to purchase new books as well.
Boxes are then packed with enough books to accommodate each student at the 62 schools that they delivered to on a monthly basis. Since the pandemic, however, these deliveries are now contact-less and are done quarterly instead of monthly, but still reach the same number of students.
Picazo shared that books at all levels they collect are always needed, chapter books for the fourth to fifth grade levels are sometimes in short supply.
“We accept book donations at our Henderson and Reno warehouse year-round, Monday through Friday, 9 AM to 4 PM,” Picazo added. “We also have a handful of book collection sites throughout the valley.”
Despite the obstacles the pandemic has thrown at STWN, they are successfully continuing the delivery of their programs.
“Now more than ever Nevada students need books to stay engaged and learning which is why we were determined not to interrupt our services while distance learning is in place,” Picazo said. “Donations help keep the flow of books going and may help add more schools from our waiting list.”
According to Picazo, the organization quickly adapted when schools switched to distance learning, having already made a contingency plan to be ready to include any health and safety restrictions that would be implemented and continue to serve children here in the community.
“With students at home, we were faced with limited distribution points for our students to receive books,” she said. “We adjusted all of our programs to comply with safety protocols and school district restrictions.”
When the schools closed in March, STWN partnered with Communities In Schools of Nevada and The Public Education Foundation to form the “Direct Care to Kids" program.
“This initiative distributed over 25,000 kits to children and their families,” Picazo said, adding that Three Square and the Boys and Girls Club have both been strong friends, and have been helpful in reaching kids not physically in school. “Our community supporters have been amazing in locking arms and getting the work done for the children of Nevada,” she said.
She went on to say “Our family literacy program, Breakfast and Snack Time with Books, was modified to a virtual program. We offer our stories to the public via Facebook Live as well as directly to classrooms.”
Picazo then discussed a major misconception about children’s literacy. “ It is assumed that all children have books. We know that they do not,” she said. “Children living in low-income neighborhoods and attending at-risk schools seldom own books and don’t have these necessary tools to learn and become confident readers.”
“We often ask people to imagine not having books when they were growing up and it’s difficult to fathom but so many of the children in our community know that as reality,” she added.
Regarding ways to help, Picazo shared that there are many ways to get involved with STWN.
“We LOVE book drives—they're super easy to organize and it brings the community together,” she said, adding that they also collect adult books that help the organization in another way.
According to Picazo, those books are resold on their Amazon store, where the proceeds are then put right back into their children’s literacy programs.
To organize a drive, or make a book donation, please visit https://spreadthewordnevada.org/book-drives-and-donations/
Picazo also spoke of how people can help by volunteering. “Our volunteer room hosts book cleaning sessions twice a week,” she said. “Every children's book we distribute should feel as good as new, so volunteers make sure they are free of dust, stickers, torn pages, [and so on].”
Learn more about volunteering at https://spreadthewordnevada.org/volunteer-options/.
“Knowing that children in need rely on our programs even more than ever before, we urge community members to visit our website and volunteer to clean books or donate,” Picazo said, adding “Just two dollars can purchase a brand new book for a child. You can even become a monthly donor and make sure that a child receives a book every month!”
To make a monetary donation, please visit https://spreadthewordnevada.org/donate-today/.
Lastly, Picazo spoke of STWN’s signature fundraising event - The Storybook Gala.
“This past February we hosted the 18th annual event at the Bellagio with over 500 guests, raising much-needed funds for our programs,” she said, adding that even though things are always changing, “we have a few tricks up our sleeves that we can’t wait to share.”
On the importance of the work STWN is doing, Picazo stated, “I can't imagine working with another organization that can deliver the life-changing programs STWN offers with the same amount of heart and passion I see every day.”
“The magic of books is something no child should be without, so I’m elated that after 20 years, we continue to keep the spark alive during this difficult time.”
Get more information on STWN at www.SpreadtheWordNevada.org, or call (702) 564-7809.