- The Washington Times - Monday, August 6, 2007

ll best-selling authors want people to read their works, but not all of them create nonprofit foundations to solve the illiteracy problem in the nation.

Before David Baldacci made writing his full-time job in 1995, he was busy working as a D.C.-area attorney and spending time with his wife, Michelle, and their two children.

Since turning to writing, Mr. Baldacci, of Vienna, has written more than 15 best-selling novels and short stories, turning a private hobby into a public passion.

Yet, he says, something in his life wasn’t quite right.

“My wife and I over the years have given to a lot of different charities,” Mr. Baldacci says, citing his sister’s multiple sclerosis as a primary inspiration for their giving. “But it was never really focused giving because we sort of gave here, there and everywhere.”

So they focused their donations by creating their own charity foundation.

In 2002, Mr. Baldacci and his wife formed the Wish You Well Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to solving illiteracy in America by promoting family literacy and the expansion of reading-based educational programs. Family literacy is the idea that the home is a child’s first school and that parents are the child’s first teachers.

The Baldaccis borrowed the name of the organization from the title of Mr. Baldacci’s 2000 novel, “Wish You Well.”

Since then, running his own charity has become like a second job for Mr. Baldacci, who serves as chairman of the board for Wish You Well.

“We meet quarterly to look at and review grant applications,” he says. “The board discusses each application, after we’ve gone over every application individually, and decides whether to fund them or not.”

Through the Wish You Well Foundation, the Baldaccis have helped fund a variety of organizations that promote reading such as the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, a nonprofit whose goal is to establish literacy as a value in every family in America; the Cool Cats Book Club at West Ridge Elementary School in Racine, Wis., a book club for third-graders in which books are read and discussed during the school year; and others.

Wish You Well has also been working with America’s Second Harvest, a food bank based in Chicago, to start a new program called Feeding Body and Mind. The goal of this new program is to get people to donate books at their local bookstore, which would then be sent to the local food banks and handed out when people come in to get their food.

“We collected more than 150,000 books on my book tour alone,” Mr. Baldacci says. “We’re going to start collecting tens of thousands of books for this project.”

Wish You Well also helps fund public school systems that cannot afford to buy books for their students. The typical grant ranges from $200 to $10,000, depending on the organization’s needs.

In 2006, Wish You Well gave a $5,000 grant to the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, which is headquartered in Falls Church. The Literacy Council hosts four programs that work with adults and children.

“We offer a one-on-one tutoring program for English as a second language,” says Martha Ticarello, the Literacy Council’s development manager. “We also have some classroom-setting programs that teach native and non-native English speakers how to read and write English better.”

Martina Murphy, the finance and resource manager for the Fairfax County Public Library Foundation, says the organization used its funds from Wish You Well almost immediately. Now the library foundation’s literacy outreach program brings the library to preschools and other places in Fairfax County where people do not have access to books.

To have a wide range of opinions represented on the board, Mr. Baldacci and his wife handpicked each board member from family friends and business acquaintances. The board now is now staffed with former teachers, financial advisers and members of various trade organizations and lobbying groups.

All the members are volunteers.

After organizing the board and getting Wish You Well up and running, Mr. Baldacci says he realized just how important their mission was.

“I was at a symposium a few years ago and it became evident that there was almost no federal money for adult literacy,” he says. “If the government were to start pumping billions of dollars into adult literacy, they would be acknowledging that the K-12 educational program is a failure.”

In 2006, the federal government spent $570 million on adult basic education and literacy programs, or roughly $190 per student per year, according to ProLiteracy.org, the Web site of ProLiteracy Worldwide. This nonprofit literacy group sponsors educational programs for adults and families.

As a result, Wish You Well now helps fund more organizations that promote adult literacy than children’s reading programs. Mr. Baldacci says. About 75 percent of the organizations that Wish You Well funds focus on adult literacy, he says.

“The severity of the illiteracy program came out to me in 2003 with the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL),” he says. “Of the 200 million American adults, 100 million fall into the first two levels of literacy.”

The NAAL survey was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and was used to determine English literacy among Americans older than 16. The survey divided respondents into four different levels of literacy that categorized their reading and comprehension skills.

“When you throw in aliterate people, those numbers are even worse,” says Mr. Baldacci, referring to those who know how to read but choose not to. “A population that is like that is a population that is easily manipulated by a very few people, and historically we know that that is a bad thing.”

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