Beginning with Books founders lament loss of literacy outreach
After 26 years of bringing the joy of reading to thousands of Pittsburgh’s underprivileged children, Beginning with Books has completed its final chapter.
The literacy outreach program, founded by University of Pittsburgh professors Dr. Joan Brest Friedberg and Dr. Elizabeth Segel in 1984, was forced to fire all 17 of its current employees this month, and permanently cease operations, because of a lack of funding.
“Don’t even get me started on what a tragedy for the community this is,” said Linda Pool, interim executive director of Beginning with Books.
Programs run by the organization included the popular Storymobile — a lending library on wheels, serving housing projects and day care centers.
“The Storymobile would pull up like an ice cream truck,” Friedberg said. “There were no fines if a book was not returned. Often, there would be story time. And when the Storymobile left, often, the children wanted to run after it.”
Other services provided by Beginning with Books included the training of day care operators to create more literacy in their centers, and the Everybody Wins program, which matched volunteers with public school students during their lunch hour for one-on-one reading sessions.
The demise of the organization was the end result of what Pool called a “perfect storm” of negative economic factors. The organization had an operating budget of $1.5 million last year, but the downturn in the economy led to a decrease in donations from individual donors, a “significant drop in corporate sponsorship,” and a loss of funding from Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program (EITC), Pool said.
“Our biggest issue, though, was with the foundations,” Pool noted. “We had always relied on foundations for support. We tried to lessen our dependence on the foundations, but it was difficult in this economy.”
Despite trying to trim expenses by laying off several employees last December, the organization could no longer keep its head above water.
“We talked about merging with another nonprofit,” Pool said, “but the foundations said they couldn’t support that plan. They need to provide funding for basic human services. They are hit from all sides as well.”
Beginning with Books reached several thousand low income children each year, many of whom have no access to a library. In addition, the organization trained well over 100 day care providers every year, creating more literacy in day care centers where operators may not have had any formal literacy training prior to opening their centers.
Closing the doors to this organization is like “a death in the family,” said board chair, Patricia Cepko Polansky. “Philanthropy is in trouble. I think we’re probably the first of many [to cease operations].”
Although she remains optimistic that a few of the group’s programs will be absorbed by other organizations in town and will survive, Cepko Polansky recalled how difficult it was to tell founders Friedberg and Segel the sad news.
“The founders have been so integral to the organization,” she said. “They have been the heart of it. Looking across the table at the them was probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do.”
Friedberg and Segel, who were children’s literature professors at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, founded the organization after studying a body of research showing conclusively that the best way to prepare children to be successful readers was to read to them during their early years. They wanted to find a way to reach the parents who were unlikely to be reading to their children, those who were overburdened or who had poor literacy skills themselves. Friedberg and Segel believed that spreading the message to these parents could be crucial in closing the well-documented gap between poor and more privileged children in reading ability and school success.
What began as the Beginning with Books Gift Book Program in 1984, which provided a free package of books and helpful information to low income parents, soon grew into the premier early literacy program in western Pennsylvania.
“I feel like I’m sitting shiva,” Friedberg said. Although she has been retired for several years, she and Segel had remained active on the board of Beginning with Books. “There were similar programs in other parts of the country, but there never was anything else quite like this.”
The impact of Beginning with Books extended beyond the city of Pittsburgh, Friedberg said, and served as a model for other locales, including the island of Fiji.
“We’ve been a player in this field for a quarter of a century,” she noted. “We began in 1984, and those babies [who benefited from the program] are now in their twenties and have children of their own. I just hope that our influence continues.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)