CLEVELAND — As a speech pathologist, Corrine Hegwood has been asking children what they like to read about for a long time.
But it’s a question she’s been asking more often recently, since she co-founded Reading at the Park with her husband and other community members. On Saturday, they hosted their sixth event at Sterling-Anderson Park in Cleveland, giving away books, diapers, and pizza to the families in attendance.
When she lived in Chattanooga, Corrine Hegwood noticed that children she worked with in low-income areas always gravitated towards books as a reward rather than toys. She started taking trunks full of books to her students and their friends, and Reading at the Park grew out of that project and the need she saw in Mississippi.
In Mississippi, 32% of children tested kindergarten ready when they started school. According to the Department of Education, research shows that if a child tests as kindergarten ready when they start school, they will be proficient in reading by the end of third grade.
Research has also demonstrated that children living in higher poverty households are less likely to have access to age-appropriate books or have a family member read to them, which has been shown to lead to improved school performance.
“What I’m finding is that (children who struggle to read) are the ones sitting in the principal’s office, because they are communicating in a different way,” Corrine Hegwood said.
Margaret Katembe, a librarian at Delta State, ran the check-in table, registering children and explaining the event to parents. She met the Hegwoods through their sons becoming friends and realized they had a shared passion for literacy which was cultivated into the Reading at the Park program.
Katembe said that turnout varies based on the size of the community they visit, but that overall she was pleased with the number of children that have attended each event. She also noted the collaborations with other groups have been helpful in attracting visitors.
“Today I can see diapers have been a big hit, and when they come for the diapers they leave with books,” Katembe said.
Once children are registered, volunteers walk with them to the book table for their age group and help them pick out books, which they take to a blanket to read together. Corrine Hegwood emphasized this process is about trying to help children find books that excite them and make them want to practice reading on their own.
At the event last Saturday, they registered over 60 children and had 30 volunteers. Since they started, they’ve given away about 1,500 books. So far, they’ve mostly been reaching older children, something they are trying to shift by partnering with the Diaper Bank of the Delta.
“Zero to five, that’s the time, that’s the window, that’s the most important time for brain development,” Corrine Hegwood said. “What they get in those first five years is an indicator of what kind of reader they are going to be.”
Les Hegwood, the priest at Calvary Episcopal Church in Cleveland, saw the need for more direct service opportunities in the church. He said the congregation has been enthusiastic in their support for the Reading at the Park program, both in terms of volunteers and funding. The program has also received funding from the Barksdale Reading Institute.
Les Hegwood explained that they have been intentional about developing a book list to buy from that is representative of the community they are serving in the Delta.
“(The list) features a lot of books that have African American characters in them, which are scarce unfortunately on library walls and in schools,” Les Hegwood said. They wanted books that “help foster a sense that ‘I am, and should be, the hero of these stories and myths that are being made in my little imagination.’”
Katembe and the Hegwoods emphasized the importance of meeting parents and children where they are, which is why they chose to focus on neighborhood parks. They are hoping to eventually get a retired shipping truck donated that they could turn into a “bookmobile” to drive the books to different communities.
Tracy Jones said she came with her children because she lives across the street from the park and wanted to see what was going on. Her son, who is in second grade, likes to read about sports. She reads mostly picture books with her almost two-year-old daughter, and said the diapers were particularly useful as they can be so expensive.
“We got ‘Snuggle Puppy’, one about the zoo, and ‘Lola Goes to the Library’,” Jones said. “I have to get the hard ones or she’ll tear them up.”
Kierre Rimmer, another co-founder of Reading at the Park, was introduced to the Hegwoods through his work as the founder of FLY Zone, a local youth empowerment organization that has been working with middle and high school students since 2013.
Rimmer said he’s seen a number of people he recognized from his work at the events, as well as a lot of new faces.
“Once they see me they get more relaxed when they come to events like this,” Rimmer said. “Les and his wife are still new, so I guess you could say I’m the gel or the liaison.”
Corrine Hegwood said for the children she meets, it’s often not a lack of interest, but a lack of access that prevents them from becoming stronger readers. She recalled a recent visit to Mound Bayou, where she was knocking on doors and met a sixth-grader.
“I said ‘well what do you want to read about?’ and she said ‘I want to read about everything.’ I just thought, ‘I want you to be able to read about everything too.’”
Editor’s note: Jim Barksdale, founder of the Barksdale Reading Institute, serves on Mississippi Today’s board of directors.