In 2006, young-adult science fiction author PJ Haarsma was busy traveling from school to school to promote his first book. The author (best known for The Softwire series) repeatedly encountered teachers who were scraping together personal funds to purchase books for their eager-to-read students.
Haarsma recruited his friend, actor Nathan Fillion (best known for his role in the ABC series “Castle”) and Denise Gary, whose company promoted Fillion’s movies and television programs, to partner with him on a project to provide books to underfunded schools.
What Gary saw in the schools’ applications for support shocked her—some had not had funds to purchase new books for 20 years and others had no books or libraries at all.
In 2008, with the economic downturn, things got even worse. That’s when Gary realized that broader outreach was needed.
With the blessing and support of Haarsma and Fillion, she started Kids Need to Read. The national nonprofit organization, based in Mesa, works to improve the lives of disadvantaged children by providing book collections and literacy programs to underfunded schools, libraries and organizations.
“When budgets are cut, books are the first thing to go,” says Gary, executive director of the program. “This sends a terrible message to kids.”
This week, Kids Need to Read celebrated the opening of its new expanded headquarters at 2450 N. Broadway Rd., Suite 110 in Mesa. The facility has new industrial shelves for books and a story time/event/meeting space.
“Literacy is crucial to our nation,” says Gary, who raised two boys of her own. “It affects every kid’s future.”
“The number one predictor of whether adults are proficient readers is if they were read to as kids,” says Gary. “Of kids who were not read to, only 16 percent go on to become proficient readers.” When kids have access to books, she says, their parents are more likely to read with them.
Gary says that literacy even impacts crime rates: “Kids in poverty are often exposed to gangs, drugs and no food in the refrigerator. They have to see a way out. Books are a fantastic tool to show another world for them and to show them people who have succeeded and risen from poverty. People who have been able to overcome a disadvantaged childhood often say that books saved them.”
How you can help
Kids Need to Read needs 2,000 “reading buddies” for kindergarten students participating in its national READ Together program this fall.
A reading buddy is any stuffed animal or doll to which children can read aloud, especially when they have no one to read with them at home. Reading buddies can be homemade or store bought, but they must be new. If you can help, write to [email protected].
Kids Need to Read also welcomes cash donations to provide books to children. Learn more.