- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

School may be winding down toward summer, but that doesn’t mean children should take a vacation from reading. In June, two local nonprofit children’s literacy organizations are making summertime reading fun for youngsters and recruiting adults who want to pass along their love of the written word to the next generation of bookworms.

“Read early and often,” advises Ernestine Walls Benedict, vice president of marketing for Reading Is Fundamental. “Children who read early end up having higher literacy skills as adults and are more likely to be lifelong readers.”

Putting this principle into practice after seeing reading neglected in Washington’s public schools, Margaret McNamara, wife of former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, started Reading Is Fundamental, also known as RIF, in 1966. RIF is the nation’s oldest and largest literacy nonprofit for children and families.

Last year, RIF partnered with US Airways on the first Read With Kids Challenge, which inspired 16,000 book lovers and parents to read to children up to age 8 for a total of 3.8 million minutes.

Mrs. Benedict explains that the partnership this year has set a goal of logging 5 million minutes of reading time by June 30. Interested readers can go to www.rif.org/read withkids and start their own reading team or join an existing one. Using the honor system, challenge participants log the minutes they spend reading with a child.

Mrs. Benedict says many teachers have become challenge participants, and they can multiply the number of minutes read to their classes by the number of students in their classroom.

RIF has an online feature called Happy Passengers, which is a list of suggested books for challenge participants, including selections such as “Off You Go, Maisy,” by Lucy Cousins.

For this year’s challenge, RIF has gathered some big names as honorary team captains, including Billy Crystal, Al Roker and Jerry Seinfeld.

All participants will be entered into a raffle featuring prizes including a Walt Disney Resort vacation package, US Airways gift cards and special book collections.

Mrs. Benedict says donations to RIF can be made at www.rif.org.

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On Monday, Everybody Wins! DC, another Washington-based reading organization, is holding its Chocolate for Literacy event at Co Co. Sala, 929 F St. NW.

Now in its 14th year, Everybody Wins! DC pairs children from Title I schools in the District with reading mentors for “power lunches” so each child can make a new friend and discover the fun in reading with a positive role model.

One of the mentors is Mark Young, a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis who is chairman of the board for Everybody Wins! DC.

Mr. Young says he was inspired by his mother, a reading specialist in the Cambridge, Mass., public school system, to help schoolchildren in the District, where 71 percent of fourth-graders eligible for free or reduced-price lunches read below the basic level, according to 2007 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Moreover, Everybody Wins! DC says that in the United States, the typical middle-class child enters first grade having had 1,000 to 1,700 hours of picture-book reading time; a low-income child’s average is just 25 hours.

“You can’t measure the impact on a child’s life when you read to them. Not only are you sharing an essential life skill, but you are bonding with someone through a book,” explains Mr. Young, who has been power-lunching with young readers for 13 years.

Everybody Wins! DC has 1,200 reading mentors, including Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, but children remain on the waiting list.

Mr. Young says Monday’s event is a way for Everybody Wins! DC to introduce the program to interested Washingtonians and recruit new mentors for next school year.

“Once we can get someone to be a mentor, they will be hooked for life,” Mr. Young says.

Tickets for Monday’s event are $50. To attend or learn more about becoming a mentor, visit www.everybodywinsdc.org.

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