A social service program that promotes reading in youth is scrambling to obtain funding to stay alive.
"We’re really in a desperate situation," said Jed Gaines, founder and president of Read Aloud America.
Read Aloud is among dozens of social service programs funded through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program directly affected by cuts made by the state Department of Human Services, which allocates the funds. The cuts were made as the state prioritized the money for needy families through direct cash assistance. The number of families at poverty level statewide increased 30 percent from last year due to the stifling economy, according to state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, chairwoman of the Senate Human Services Committee.
Cuts will save the department $8.4 million through June 30 and $38 million in each of the next two fiscal years. Programs like Read Aloud are forced to find other sources of funding.
In the wake of the cuts, the program has
sliced its staff to seven from 12. In the fall 2011 schedule, Read Aloud will go to only four of the 12 schools it had originally scheduled.
Lanai High and Elementary School was one of the schools canceled from Read Aloud’s fall schedule. "We were looking foward to having the program here based on the success rate established," said Principal Pierce Myers.
The following are among 41 social service programs whose contracts were terminated by the state:
HOW TO HELP:
Ninety-five percent of the program’s budget came from the state. About $1.4 million remains on its contract that will be terminated June 30. The program has been operating on $1.7 million every fiscal year in the last few years.
Gaines said Read Aloud recently received grants totaling $45,000 from the First Hawaiian Bank Foundation and General Atlantic Corp., but more is needed. Staff are working on more grant requests but are worried because it can take months or up to a year before any commitments are made. Though faced with financial uncertainty, Gaines said they don’t have any plans of shutting down. "The organization is here to stay," he said.
Aimed at changing attitudes toward reading among children and their parents, Read Aloud approaches reading in a fun way with trivia questions and prizes that include stickers, T-shirts, books and Frisbees. "When you’re having a good time, you learn," said Gaines. Six sessions are held per semester at participating elementary and middle schools.The program stresses to parents that they are key in boosting their child’s interest in reading. "If you don’t focus on the home, very little is going to be accomplished," he said.
An average of 346 adults and children attend each session, according to Gaines. A total of 268,409 adults and children have participated in the program since it started in 1999.
Reading, Gaines said, is vital to help children become successful. Reading or being read to helps stimulate the thinking process. "It gets you to explore. It gets you to open your imagination and discover who you are," he added. "If a kid can find their inner core, develop vocabulary and self-confidence, this will lead them to become good, productive citizens."
Chun Oakland said lawmakers will try to restore some of the social service programs as the economy improves. Meanwhile, lawmakers are seeking assistance from philanthropic organizations to help keep the programs going.
Haiku Elementary School on Maui was the last school Read Aloud visited this past spring. Principal Bernice Takahata raved about the program, saying more than 450 people — 222 adults and 235 students — attended the first session. The student population at Haiku Elementary is 444.
Takahata said she hopes the program will be able to obtain additional funding because it has a positive impact on students. "Children see the value of reading for the benefit of improving their academics. Read Aloud is a wonderful support (program) to encourage students to keep reading," she added.