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Good Nutrition for Young Minds

Head Start and Kiwanis dish out “Books for Breakfast.”

Head Start teacher Lonya Graham spends her mornings and afternoons with a classroom of rambunctious 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. Although few of the children know how to read yet, she says it’s obvious which ones are regularly exposed to reading at home. “You can tell the children that use books because their language skills are better,” she said. “They have more vocabulary.”

Carol Bellamy, the education manager for Mount Vernon’s Head Start program, which has a center in Gum Springs Community Center, thinks of childhood reading as vital nutrition for developing minds. For this reason, the Head Start program at Gum Springs has been participating for years in “Reading is Fundamental,” a nation-wide effort to get books into students’ homes.

This year, RIF will be funded for the first time by the Kiwanis Club of Mount Vernon, freeing funds for Head Start to use on other programs. On Thursday, Kiwanis members gave all 120 Head Start and Early Head Start students at Gum Springs the chance to bring home their own picture book. The theme of the event was “Books for Breakfast.”

“We’re trying to encourage families to read as much as possible and add reading to the daily nutritional content they give to their children,” Bellamy explained. Flyers distributed with each book tell parents that 30 minutes of reading to their child each day will mean he has digested almost 1,000 hours of reading time by the time he enters kindergarten. If the same child had only gotten 30 minutes a week, that number drops to less than 150 hours of “brain food” and a less-developed capacity to learn.

Anne Taggert, the Head Start Coordinator for Gum Springs, said scientific data supports the link between a child’s exposure to reading at an early age and her future success in the classroom. “When you look at the research, the more children are read to, the more language they’ll develop and the better they’ll do when they reach kindergarten,” she said.

Most children enrolled in the county’s Head Start pre-school program are in families with incomes below the federal poverty limit, less than $20,000 a year for a family of four. Derek Dupuis, the secretary of Mount Vernon’s Kiwanis Club, said Kiwanis Clubs across the country help fund Reading Is Fundamental programs because the effort fulfills two of Kiwanis’ major focus areas: children and literacy. He said his club bought more than 500 books. Half were given away last week, the other half will go home with students before Christmas. Dupuis said most of the money his Kiwanis club raises comes from a Christmas Tree Sale at Belle View Shopping Center.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for Kiwanis to partner with the community,” said Bruce Malkin, chairman of the club’s community service committee.

AT ABOUT 11 A.M., Graham’s Room 6 class filed into a room outfitted with a display packed with picture books. Reading Is Fundamental requires that students be allowed to choose their own books, so as the students waited with admirable patience for the procedure to be explained, many were eagerly scanning the shelves. “I want Clifford!” one student called out.

When they were released to choose, a joyful scramble for books ensued. Some students knew exactly what they wanted, clutching their selections to their chest. Others lingered at the shelves, overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Kiwanis member Erin Chiem was writing students’ names in their new books. She said she saw “a lot of anticipation and excitement. They’re so intrigued. It’s a lot of fun seeing these kids so excited about reading.”

“It did feel like we were making a difference, just being here for a couple of hours,” added another Kiwanis member, Lisa Caputo.

Bellamy said the give-away serves a dual purpose. Owning a book means children can handle it and browse through it; even if they can’t read, they become familiar with the letters and shapes. In addition, their parents are more likely to read to them when books are on hand. “We want our families to know how important it is,” she said. “It’s the simplest thing they can do,” to prepare their children for school.

Room 6 teacher Graham added that books give parents the opportunity to start discussions with their children and create and environment in which their children can ask them questions. Mohammed Munir touched on this point when discussing his son Heider Ali’s new book. He said that if his son reads only at school, his education will stop when the bell rings. Reading at home will mean Mohammed and his wife can answer their son’s questions and become more involved in his education. “I can read to him,” Munir said. “I can explain to him.”

Bellamy said that they hope the individual books they gave away create a craving for more. At parent meetings, she hands out library applications. She said Fairfax county libraries allow parents to check out up to 50 books for their children and keep them three weeks. But one book may be enough for youngsters who are just learning the rhythms and repetitions of written words, for whom the most significant letter is not the first in the alphabet but the first in their name. “If children ask to read the same story over and over again, it’s okay,” Bellamy said.