You, reader, are looking at this sentence. You know the letters. You recognize the words. You understand the flow of the paragraph. By now, perhaps, you are wondering where it is going.
Because you can do all of these things, you are in the 47% of Chicago’s adult population who read at or above the fourth grade level.
Consider, for a moment, what it is like to be in the 53% that do not.
In a major urban center like Chicago, literacy is a critical skill for the basic needs of everyday life. Feeding yourself and your family is difficult when you cannot read food labels at the grocery store. Getting where you need to go is hard when you cannot read the bus schedule. The challenges start at home (61% of low-income families do not own a single children’s book), continue through elementary school (44% of America’s fourth graders cannot read aloud fluently), and high school (only 54% of incoming freshmen in Chicago public high schools graduate with a diploma), and seed themselves in the next generation (37% of adults in Chicago cannot read a story to a child). But despite these scary statistics, literacy is one of the greatest areas of hope in social service, because it is an area where you can make a huge difference using nothing more than the skills you already have.
Open Books was founded to make this connection possible. By collecting used books from across the city and selling them to raise money for our literacy programs, we hoped to engage supporters at all levels and to make literacy a fun and fundamental part of life for students of all levels citywide. We now spread the joy of reading and writing to more than 4,000 students each year, and we are thrilled to present a spectrum of opportunities for you to help us do even more.
Every week, in classrooms across the city, volunteers meet one-on-one with elementary school students to share an hour of reading together as Open Books Buddies. They work on fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, but they are also learning something much more basic—that reading is fun, and that they have a dedicated friend to share it with them. “I’ve been waiting for this all week!” exclaimed one little Buddy recently, and big Buddies agree: “My Buddies have become more confident and competent readers,” wrote one. “And I’d like to think that through my time with them, the students gain a trusted friend who can offer valuable life lessons and broaden their perspectives.” In one hour each week, this volunteer has changed the course of a few lucky children’s lives through reading. If you can read this sentence, you can do it too.
Looking for something more colorful? Twice each week, Open Books holds Adventures in Creative Writing field trips, which bring classes of 4th–12th grade students together for two-hour workshops in nonfiction prose, poetry, slam, and fairy tale writing. Students share tables with volunteer writing coaches who help them think through their life experiences, pick a moment to write about, and put the story down on paper, then join in the applause as the writers take the floor—in the distinctive pencil costume—to read their work to the group. Some students share stories about amusement parks and birthday parties. Others write about gang violence, drugs, and death. For many students, the trip is the first time they have shared a particular experience with the group. For all of them, it is a chance to make writing an exciting, relevant, participatory adventure instead of a rote academic assignment. When the trip is over, each student gets a published booklet of the entire class’s work (and photos of the trip) to keep. “Open Books made me feel like I can be a great writer and you gave me the confidence to do it,” wrote one student. “I had a great time and I can’t wait to come back!! You made me express myself in a way I can’t ever imagine. You made me feel good about my writing and not ashamed.” In two hours, a volunteer made this student into a confident author. If you can read this paragraph, you can do it too.
The transition from high school to adult life is not easy for anyone, and it is especially challenging for students with limited literacy skills. VWrite, the third of Open Books’ programs, matches high school juniors with volunteer mentors to work on professional reading, writing, and communications skills. Pairs meet in person at the beginning of the program, then communicate about assignments by phone and email, and more, forming what the New York Times described as “a full-scale mentoring relationship with the potential to change lives.” At their own pace and on their own schedule, volunteers in this program give their students the confidence and the ability to write the college essays, job applications, and emails that will help determine their futures. Our newest program, ReadThenWrite, transforms teenage students into published authors, and your skills as a mentor and editor can make the magic happen. And if nothing mentioned in this story so far is the perfect fit for your talents, we’re more than happy to connect you with one of our 25+ partners around town to find exactly the right place for you to make a difference for literacy.
Every day, the Open Books team of more than 3,000 volunteers helps us enrich lives through reading, writing, and the UNLIMITED power of used books.
If you have read this essay, you can do it too.
To learn more about Open Books’ programs and get started volunteering, visit us here.
Written in Spring 2010.
Stacy Ratner is the founder and Executive Director of Open Books, a nonprofit social venture that operates an extraordinary bookstore in River North, provides community programs citywide, and mobilizes passionate volunteers to promote literacy in Chicago and beyond. Before founding Open Books in 2006 she spent a decade as a serial entrepreneur in key roles at startups Snapdragon Technologies, Wired Business, Ionospeed, Driveitaway, and Sittercity, bringing three of them from idea through a combined total of $30 million in venture funding and receiving honors, including PhillyTech’s Thirty Under 30 award. A lifelong reader and writer, Stacy makes time each year to participate in National Novel Writing Month (for which she has written seven books so far) and Blogathon. She holds degrees in law and literature from Brandeis University and Boston College Law School, recently received her Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, and hopes to see you at Open Books soon.