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Freedom Readers: Creating Young Scholars

By Bob Gatty

Hundreds of young South Carolina children are learning the wonders of reading, and gaining the benefits that this can bring to their lives through an expanding non-profit program. Freedom Readers brings free books and one-to-one tutoring to kids so they can begin to build their own personal libraries and enjoy them independently.

The program was founded nine years ago by Tracy Bailey, a PhD in language and literacy from the University of South Carolina, who is committed to giving children, from kindergarten through eighth grade, a head start on the reading skills so essential to their lifetime success.

“Our mission is to improve reading skills in low-income communities by providing one-to-one literacy tutoring, free books for home libraries, and an inspiring, high-energy learning environment,” said Dr. Bailey. “People who don’t read well struggle in life. In fact, 85 percent of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile justice court system are functionally low literate. Anything you try to do in life, you need to be able to read well.”

Freedom Readers was launched in 2010 in Conway, SC, the county seat of Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach, as well as many rural, low-income communities. It has expanded to Georgetown and Williamsburg counties and now serves some 250 children with 177 volunteers. The goal is to eventually serve students through high school.

The volunteers who conduct one-on-one tutoring sessions with the children include people from all walks of life – professionals and non-professionals who love to read and want to help children. Sessions are held in schools, churches, community centers, apartment complexes and when the kids – the scholars – go home, they get to select a book and take it home.

“We are trying to build libraries in homes so kids have that feeling, ‘This is why I’m special,'” said Dr. Bailey. “They are going to read to the cat, to their mommy, to their teddy bear. The more books you have in your house the more likely you are to read at home and do better academically. My daddy read to me every night before I went to sleep.”

The weekly one-on-one reading sessions cover from eight to 14 weeks and will be held at 12 active sites this summer and are centered around a theme. Most recently, the theme was “perseverance,” with scholars learning about the lives of people who persevered through difficult times.

For one of the meetings, the featured perseverance hero was Malala Yousafzai, a young Afghan girl who was shot by the Taliban for going to school and later became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her story is detailed in I Am Malala.

“I get to make a love connection between kids and books,” Dr. Bailey observed. “And once you make that love connection, nobody can stop you.”

In addition to the weekly reading sessions, Freedom Readers places free books for kids to take home in doctors’ offices, barber shops, laundromats and other locations where children are likely to gather.

Dr. Bailey left her position as a consultant to an education software company to take over Freedom Readers full-time two years ago with the encouragement and support of her husband, journalist and author Isaac J. Bailey. “We’re both aligned on this,” she said. “After a lot of prayer and conversation, we decided to invest what we have in a place where we could do the most good.”

The program received a huge boost recently from The UPS Store Inc., which selected it from among 1,000 nominations to win $10,000 worth of books through its Toys for Tots Literacy Program. Unbeknownst to Dr. Bailey, two supporters nominated Freedom Readers for the award.

“We give away so many books, but now we can take the money we allot for books and direct it toward keeping our doors open,” she said. “It’s a big deal for us.” Contributions of new and gently read books are always needed, and a list of books most desired by the children can be found on the organization’s website.

On May 7, Freedom Readers is participating in Palmetto Giving Day, part of a nationwide 24 hr. fundraising initiative for non-profit organizations. Freedom Readers hopes to raise $15,000 through this initiative. Dr. Bailey said a single $100 contribution will pay the cost of serving one student for an entire session.

“With your help, Freedom Readers can continue to put books in the hands of children of all zip codes. Based upon our recent data, children attending Freedom Readers sessions have seen almost a 100% growth increase in their reading scores,” said Dr. Bailey. “I don’t think a child’s zip code should determine a child’s outcome.”

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