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Think back to your grammar school days. When did you learn to read? Did your parents read to you? What was your favorite book? If books were a part of your life from the beginning, you’ve been given more than just happy memories.
Increasingly, research shows that early reading skills are a key indicator of academic achievement and lifelong success. As Jessica Bowersox says, “Literacy creates opportunities and choices for children, and a lack of reading skills limits those opportunities and choices. Learning to read is one of the most important steps in a child’s life because it sets the foundation for future learning in school and beyond.”
Bowersox has seen first-hand the importance of reading for young children. She’s the Communications Director for SMART: Start Making A Reader Today, an organization devoted to helping children all over Oregon become successful early readers. Across the state, SMART helps children from pre-kindergarten to third grade build their literacy skills, both at school and in their homes.
The local economy has suffered in recent years, and in some communities the poverty rate is as high at 27%. Della Harp is the Area Manager for Douglas County SMART. Explains Harp,
“Here in Douglas County, we continue to struggle with the declining timber revenues. We have closed our libraries and are moving towards a volunteer and community-based system to provide services to our community members.” Without libraries, many families lack access to books, media, or the Internet, causing children to fall behind before they even start school.
SMART works with local schools and Head Start locations to reach children in need, providing trained volunteers for one-on-one reading sessions with children. SMART also provides children with free books to take home, and offers guidance to parents about how to make reading a regular family activity.
“Research proves that shared book reading and access to books in the home during a child’s earliest years are the strongest predictors of literacy skills,” says Jessica Bowersox. These early literacy skills are a key building block of academic performance all the way through high school and beyond.
In fact, children who don’t read at benchmark levels by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school. For children living in poverty, the numbers are even more concerning.
Through strategic Impact Grants, Umpqua Bank helps organizations like SMART to address the systemic causes of poverty in our communities. With the help of a three-year Impact Grant, SMART increased the number of children they serve in Douglas County by over 70%. In the 2017-2018 school year, they expect to serve approximately 650 of the county’s children in underserved communities.
In addition, Umpqua Bank has contributed time, by offering their associates one week per year of paid volunteer hours. In just the past three years, 44 Umpqua Bank associates have volunteered over 1,150 hours of service to SMART. Umpqua Bank regional director Terri Browning serves as a board officer, sharing her professional expertise to help lead SMART into the future.
SMART’s program model has already shown impressive results. In the 2016-2017 school year:
87% of students met grade-level benchmarks for reading motivation by the end of the program year (compared to 75% the previous year)
90% of students showed improvement in expressing pleasure in being read to
74% showed improvement in overall reading performance
91% showed improvement in their self-confidence around early reading skills
The program’s impact on children and families can’t always be measured in statistics. For Della Harp, the program’s success is evident in the stories she hears from kids and families enrolled in the program. Harp recalls one family who was profoundly grateful for the books their preschooler received through SMART:
“Before receiving the books, the family didn’t spend much time reading together. However, the child was so excited by the books she received that the parents made a weekly family night around each book. At a meeting with other participating families, the parents shared how their little girl chose a book about making a fairy house for the fairies in the backyard. The family worked together to build one of their own in their backyard. They were all very excited about what book and activity would be next!”
If you want to learn more about SMART’s important work throughout Oregon, take a look at their website. To find out more about Umpqua Bank Impact Grants and how your organization can apply, take a look at our Impact Grant Guidelines.