As a child Cherokee County teacher Julia Johnson read, in her words, “tons and tons of books.” As a parent she instilled a love of reading in her son that led him to a career as an aspiring children’s book author.
With Julia’s second-grade students, however, she found many were among the estimated 61 percent of low-income families nationwide who didn’t own a book. “Books are important, and a lot of families can’t afford them,” Julia says. “If you go into a bookstore now and look at prices, it’s outrageous. Some families must choose: are we going to buy books or are we going to eat?”
Having witnessed the effects of limited access to early reading in her students, Julia answered a social media post seeking volunteers for Ferst Readers of Cherokee County. Ferst Readers is a nonprofit literacy program that encourages early reading by mailing a bookstore-quality, age-specific book and activity page to a child’s home each month from birth to age five.
At the national level the organization works with major publishers to source and mail books and at-home companion activities. Community Action Teams, or CATs, are formed at the county level to raise funds to purchase books, grow awareness, and register families in the program.
“Since 2020 many families are struggling to pay for the basic necessities—food, clothing, shelter, and medications—so buying books is not at the top of their priority list,” says Michelle Maddox, Ferst Readers program manager. “Ferst Readers provides free access to high-quality literature, which takes the guesswork out for parents who might not know what kind of book is age-appropriate for their child. The Cherokee County CAT mission helps prepare children to enter kindergarten ready to read.”
“If children enter school with a strong vocabulary [and] background knowledge, know how to listen to a story, and look at a book independently, the kindergarten teacher’s job has become a little bit easier,” Michelle says. “Nothing builds confidence in a child as much as being able to contribute to story time by knowing how to answer questions or having knowledge of a story already.”
“It gets [students] better prepared,” Julia adds. She says that children who can’t read often struggle with their self-esteem. “I previously taught kindergarten, and we had kids who never touched a book, had no idea how to open it, and didn’t know their letters and sounds. We spent a lot of time building their confidence.”
Robin Ferst of Madison, Georgia, developed the Ferst Readers program in 1999 to address the lack of basic school readiness and early reading skills in kindergartners. Each month each family receives a book and a parent-engagement newsletter, Leap into Books. The newsletter provides book-specific critical questions, relevant vocabulary, and fun-filled activities the family can enjoy that help the family become the child’s first teacher and take the story beyond the book. The first and last book mailed to each child is bilingual in English and Spanish.
“And it arrives directly in their mailbox,” says Julia. “What kid doesn’t love to get mail?”
Julia didn’t know that the pandemic decimated the Ferst Readers of Cherokee County Community Action Team [CAT]. When she joined the once-active group, it had dwindled to two members, including Julia; then the other member dropped out, leaving Julia alone to keep the local organization afloat. Funding for the books is generated through donations and proceeds from events hosted by the local team. Without CAT’s fundraising, local children enrolled in the program would have stopped receiving books.
“I was really panicking,” says Julia. “If it weren’t for Towne Lake Rotary, we would have had some big problems.”
With Julia working to rebuild the Cherokee County CAT, the Rotary Club of Towne Lake stepped up to provide enough funding to continue the program. Jim Klynman, Rotary Club president, said the organization has supported Ferst Readers since 2016, in accordance with the Rotary International goal of supporting education and literacy. “The program starts children early, teaching the importance of reading and comprehension,” Jim says. “So many families today do not have the time to help or encourage children to read books. We need to make sure our children learn to read so later in life they will be good members of society.”
Two of the most significant predictors of early educational success are access to books and being read to at home prior to beginning school. As of 2023, only 48 percent of Cherokee County students read at a proficient level. Future drop-out rates more than triple for children entering school without basic literacy skills. The Ferst Readers of Cherokee County program intends to improve those outcomes by providing monthly resources to a growing number of local children–about 250 children in 2023.
While Julia is busy teaching her second graders and mentoring her son, she’s also actively seeking volunteers to staff the Cherokee County CAT. Though the team is up to five volunteers now—Julia, Diane Hart, Lynn Hamblett, Renee Bernhardt, and Maureen Ratliff—more are needed to consistently support young readers in Cherokee County and help raise funds while increasing visibility and participation in the program. Individuals and organizations can support the CAT directly through Julia and the team or donate on the Ferst Readers website. The cost per child is $42 annually, or $3.50 a month, less than the cost of drink at your local coffee shop, Julia points out. Contributors should choose Ferst Readers of Cherokee County when donating to ensure funds go to a local child.
“I want every kid to love reading. And if they come to school loving reading, you can’t imagine how far they can go,” says Julia. “Watching my own students this year, once I got those who were struggling to love reading, they were so proud of themselves. There’s a magical moment when it clicks. Even if it’s just listening to a story, that’s a magical time for families. I want every kid to have that.”
Learn more about Ferst Readers of Cherokee County, donate, or register a child for the program at FerstReaders.org. Be sure to choose Ferst Readers of Cherokee County from the menu when donating to ensure funds go to a local child.
You May Also Like…
Susan Overcash Walker is a freelance writer and former engineer based in Woodstock, where she lives with her husband, two children and very fluffy dog. She has worked as a staff writer and editor, and her short fiction has been published in The Tulane Review, Whiskey Island, Crimewave and other journals.