Interview with Kelly Partner, Founder of Early Literacy Nonprofit First Pages
Local nonprofit focuses on providing books to children in Durham
Giving Tuesday is coming up next week and as part of that I'm hosting a book drive for the non-profit organization First Pages. I recently sat down with Kelly Partner, the founder of First Pages, to talk with her about the organization. First Pages focuses on providing books to children age 0 to 5 and promoting pre-literacy skills in Durham, North Carolina. Kelly, thanks for meeting with me!
Liz: First Pages is a relatively new organization since its official launch party in July this year. What was the motivation for starting the organization?
Kelly: My motivation stems back quite a while ago. I actually got my Master's degree in teaching and I taught eighth grade language arts for a very brief amount of time in Durham. When I started I had about ninety students between the different sections. About 75% of them were reading at least one grade below grade level, and around 50% or more were around the fourth or fifth grade level in the eighth grade. And so having that experience and seeing that end of things, even though I left teaching to go into fundraising, education was always near and dear to my heart and I knew that I was going to come back to education somehow but not in the same way. Once I started doing fundraising I realized my love of non-profit management so the lightbulb clicked and I was like, “Alright, I can combine both of these and do something useful!” I started thinking about how those kids got to where they were and I did a little more early literacy research and realized what a crazy gap there was for kids before they entered kindergarten.
Liz: How did you identify the need for First Pages in the community?
Kelly: First just based off the national research I realized that there's a huge lack of access to high quality children's books in low income homes, and that includes North Carolina for sure. Since I had come from the education world I had a lot of friends who were teaching at the kindergarten and first grade level. I chatted with them and they confirmed at least anecdotally in this area that that is true here too, in that a lot of their kids are coming to books for the first time in their kindergarten classrooms, and that a lot of the families can't access the libraries. That's everyone’s first thought, “Well that’s why we have libraries,” but some of my kindergarten teachers confirmed that libraries aren’t accessible to everyone, so there was a need to get books into the hands of kids some other way.
Liz: How is First Pages different than other organizations that focus on literacy, such as Book Harvest or the library or the Durham Literacy Center?
Kelly: The Durham Literacy Center focuses mostly on adults, so that's a big difference for us. We do overlap with Book Harvest at this stage in our life, but our big difference is we're only doing Durham and we're only doing ages zero to five, and while that's a piece of their pie that's our whole pie.
And then with the library it boils down to access. The library hours are getting cut more and more as their funding is cut, transportation for families who don’t have guaranteed transportation is an issue, and then there’s the hours just in terms of non-traditional working hours that a lot of parents work. There are a lot of families who just don’t know about the library, and they don’t learn about it until their kids go to school and then there’s a school library and they get more information, but we miss that zero to five age for some families who would access it but they simply don’t know about it. It gets complicated too with having to return the books, the fees associated with not returning them on time and there’s this big population that we hope to serve who are leery about getting a library card because of documentation purposes. And then you don’t get to keep the books! It boils down to that too. Repetition is key for kids not just within a book with sentences and rhyming, but actually the same book over and over again is really beneficial. So the fact that they can own Goodnight Moon for two years is better than just borrowing books on occasion.
Liz: The premise of First Pages is to collect books for young children. How are books collected and distributed?
Kelly: Right now we rely a lot on community book drives and they’re just done by people at their workplaces. A lot of preschools from more affluent areas have gotten into it and they do book drives at their preschools and a lot of parents are gifting the books from their kids who have outgrown them from their toddlerhood. And then with the dollars that we fundraise we’re able to participate in a book marketplace. There’s a national non-profit set up solely to help get literacy nonprofit groups books at a cheaper price. We’re able to get brand-new books for 70-90% off their retail price. The book marketplace works with a lot of publishers and distributers getting free books which are then distributed to us and we just pay shipping. So a lot of the books that we’re buying we pay just about 55 cents per book for brand new high quality books with the real Sesame Street and other characters instead of generic books.
It’s wonderful. We’ve gotten quite a few shipments for basically 55 cents per book and we have big plans for these books.
Liz: So how are books distributed?
Kelly: Since our big thing is access we wanted to go where families in need are already going. We don’t distribute books directly to families, we distribute them to organizations that we work with that are already serving these families. They are able to get these books out alongside whatever services the families are already receiving there. One of our big partners is the Durham Department of Public Health, specifically with their Centering Pregnancy program which is part of the Women’s Clinic. They have groups of low risk pregnant moms that are grouped by birth due date and they go through all their classes. They are like pre-natal education classes and pre-natal medical check-ups. It’s all done as a group so it might be fifteen women in there and it might be a two hour class and during the class you’re pulled out for 15 minutes for your medical appointment, and then you go right back in. It’s a big one-stop shop and we piggyback with them. About three quarters of the way through the program they have a little baby shower for all the moms and they get a bundle of First Pages books during the baby shower. And they’re thrilled! We’d love to expand to all the pre-natal visits that they do, but that’s a huge number. So the Centering is a very small piece of what they do but it’s a little more manageable to be part of. It’s been a good test run with them, but our hope is to grow enough to serve all of the moms who are getting pre-natal care there.
And then the other one we’ve just started working with is a local preschool, Nuestra Escuelita. They do 4 days a week of preschool and two of the days are in English and two are in Spanish, and so it’s an immersion program. They almost exclusively serve Latino families. They are a nonprofit preschool themselves so they are already fundraising to keep their doors open and their parents pay on a sliding scale based on income. They reached out to us because they used to give books away to all their students. They let the students pick one book twice a month to take home off their preschool library shelves, but they essentially just ran out of books and so they haven’t been able to make that a priority compared to keeping their doors open. Which is kinda the same paradox that families have when it comes to buying books versus putting food on the table. So we are now partnering with them and giving them enough book bundles for their kids to take a bundle home each month.
Our bundles are essentially a gallon ziplock bag and they have three books in it, so the kids are getting more books than they were before. Each bundle has three books and parent information in English and Spanish in that bundle about early literacy and ways to make reading exciting. Not everyone realizes just how critical some of the skills that their kids learn before they get to school are, and parents may not realize that it really is a big deal that their kid knows which way to hold a book and turn pages. That sets up a lot for them in kindergarten and so just pointing that out and reminding them that what they do really matters, because sometimes parents get really overwhelmed.
Liz: Do families have to apply to receive books? Or can anyone receive a book bundle?
Parents don’t have to apply to receive books, they just receive the book bundle. We leave it up to the partners we are working with on how exactly they want to distribute them. There’s the baby shower [at the Centering Pregnancy program] and they have a special day that they’re going to do it at the preschool every month. We’re in talks with a few other partnerships that we hope will get solidified in this coming month and the way they distribute will look differently, but basically it’s just free, open access to that, whether it’s a day everyone gets books or if it’s in a box or crate just free for the taking. We leave it up to those partners because we want to make sure we’re not prescribing how to do it and it’s fitting their needs and it’s fitting their clients and their relationship with their clients. We don’t want to presume how best to distribute them.
Liz: Durham’s Hispanic population grew from 1% in 1990 to 8% in 2000 to 13% in 2014, and is expected to continue growing. How has this affected the books you collect for young children?
Hugely! Our pie in the sky dream would be to have all the books in our bundle be bilingual no matter who receives them. Now that is a very lofty goal, one that I’m sure will take us years to work towards, but I think it is the best approach. The great thing about buying the new books is that we can buy them in quantity, as opposed to the community book drives which are great but we might get thirty different titles and they are almost exclusively all English - it’s very rare we get a bilingual book [from a book drive]. With these titles we are actually starting to translate them ourselves. We’ve worked with our partners and we know the need is great for bilingual books, but they are more expensive to purchase than their English counterparts.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar is always my go-to example because it’s a beloved book. The Spanish version of that is two dollars more than the English-only version. Publishers don’t see the money in making bilingual or other language books - whether they are single language or bilingual - so they make fewer copies of them and so they have to charge more for them. It’s an unfortunate side effect that they are that much more expensive, which is even more cost prohibitive for families that we’re already trying to work with, and it’s cost prohibitive for us: there’s no way we can spend $9 to get one book, so our alternative is to translate them ourselves. Our partners say that mostly the parents want to read to their kids in English and in Spanish but they are nervous to read the English parts themselves because they don’t have a firm grasp on the English language, so they really just want the translation as a cheat sheet more than anything. We have a small crew of folks who are native Spanish speakers and they are translating these new books that we get in quantities of 30, 60, 90, etc. [Our volunteers] basically are printing translations on mailing labels and [the labels] are put on each page, so there’s going to be a small little Spanish language translation cheat sheet on the bottom so parents can read to their kid in both languages.
That’s really the focus for any books we buy off the marketplace: the intent is to get them translated and put into the bundles. Our hope is that for our partners we’d have at least one bilingual book in each [bundle] supplemented by some English-only books, rather than only being able to produce a few all-bilingual bundles. We hope to have at least one bilingual book in each of our bundles moving forward starting in 2017 and then slowly whittling our way to two books and then eventually all three. That’s the real way we’re hoping to tackle that. And then our parent information in there is already in English and Spanish.
Liz: Your organization emphasizes Spanish language book donations. Is that a niche that has been traditionally overlooked by other literacy programs in the area?
Kelly: I think so. I haven’t seen a ton that have been really committed to bilingual books, and again I think it’s just because of the cost and the nature of that in general. It’s very hard to predict [inventory] - if you’re not going to go all out and say the books will all be bilingual it’s very hard to predict and do inventory and say, “Well this partner says they need half bilingual books, and this partner says only two people need bilingual books, etc.” So yes, I haven’t found a whole lot that have been really focused on [Spanish language books] and on the age group we’re looking at. I know a lot of great programs that are looking at adult literacy including English language learners and whole-family literacy, but not targeted specifically to those under five kids which is a huge population in this area. Where I grew up there was a huge Hispanic population as well so that has always been something that has been at the top of mind for me - the lack of bilingual resources. I saw friends whose parents struggled within the schools just to navigate the school system.
Liz: Oh? Where did you grow up?
Kelly: I lived in Spain as a kid for a short amount of time as a military brat, and then after that we lived in Northern Virginia just outside DC which has a huge immigrant population and refugee population. So that’s definitely something that’s near and dear to my heart so I also hope to start working with a few of the refugee placement organizations in this area and when they place families that have kids under five I hope that they’re able to distribute some book bundles to them as well, so that’s definitely on the top of my list for 2017.
Liz: From what I understand you don’t just accept book donations, but you also accept monetary donations as well, correct?
Kelly: Most definitely! The book donations are great, so I certainly don’t want to downplay that, but the monetary donations just allow us to do the bilingual stuff and fill the gaps. We might have one month where we get a lot of preschool aged books but not a lot of board books or vice versa and [the monetary donations] let us fill that gap. And if people already have books from their kids and are donating them, then that’s awesome, but if somebody were to go out and they want to buy a new book for us, I always try to encourage them [to donate cash instead of buy] because of this marketplace. If you were to go and buy a seven dollar board book on Amazon, I could get ten books if you just gave me that seven dollars. It’s a good blend and we need both to keep going.
Liz: You actually have a background in teaching with a Master’s in Teaching from UNC-Chapel Hill and a year of teaching experience at a charter school. How did that experience guide your vision for First Pages?
It’s funny - I only taught for about six months. I think what really guided me more than the background in teaching was the last five years working in fundraising. The two hospitals I worked at - UNC and now Duke Children’s - both have huge Medicaid children populations who are the exact populations we want to reach with First Pages, so I think that [fundraising experience] more than my teaching background helped shape the vision. Just learning how to be a good steward of people’s resources that they’re giving us - whether it’s their time, their talent, or their treasure - and just working those ins and outs of the nonprofit world I think has set us up to be the best we can be from the beginning as opposed to going through a lot of the growing pains that young nonprofits - which we certainly will go through too - go through, but hopefully we’ll avoid some of the big pitfalls from having that [nonprofit] background. We recently set up an advisory council and I pulled in a lot of people who have a lot more of the early childhood education experience than I do, so we have a couple kindergarten teachers and speech language pathologists on the advisory committee. We definitely try to diversify and I definitely don’t think that I know it all.
Liz: Your most recent work has been with fundraising. How has that helped you with First Pages?
One of the things I definitely knew I wanted - before I even knew what First Pages specifically would look like - was I wanted something where people could feel they could contribute even if they didn’t have funds. I did want that equal blend of in-kind donations and monetary donations, so that was definitely big for me to know that in advance. I think a lot of the simple things that a lot of the other nonprofits would have a hard time getting to create or would have to pay somebody to do [I already had], so like I already have photography releases and in-kind donations forms. Because I’ve worked with [nonprofits] a long time through the hospital I had a good template that I knew was sound that I could just adapt for First Pages, and then working with a lot of nonprofit people has really helped. I’ve made a lot of connections through my actual job that have led to positive things for First Pages with different partners and different people. It’s just shaped it very organically, but it’s been good. I’m hoping within the next couple weeks to be able to formally and officially announce a new partnership with a few Duke Children’s primary clinics. They serve a lot of the same population we want to work with, and the intensive care nursery at Duke Children’s also needs books constantly and that’s not something that gets paid through insurance or anything like that, so hopefully soon we’ll have those partners.
Liz: You reference on the First Pages blog a TedxUNC talk where John Wood, the co-founder of Room to Read, talked about “GSD” (Getting Shit Done) people. How did his talk inspire you and what specific points did you use to push yourself to start First Pages?
Kelly: The biggest overarching takeaway - I’d have to revisit his specific points - but I definitely left [the talk] and it was within a few days that I submitted the articles of incorporation for First Pages to the state. The reason I did that specifically after that talk is I took away the idea of “it’s better to get something going than for it to be perfect.” At that point First Pages had been an idea in my head for over a year but I had been so focused on details. I didn’t want to do anything until I had it all ready. And so I probably had the in-kind donation forms already typed up and all the planning type things, and I didn’t want to do anything until it was all perfectly done. That talk really inspired me to do something though, because at that point it had felt like a year and nothing was being done - even though it was [being done], but not physically in the world - so his talk said to jump in with both feet and stop putting the toe in the water and just do something because doing something good is better than doing nothing waiting for perfect. So that was the biggie for sure, and it was just icing on the cake that he happened to found a nonprofit that is very closely related within the same realm with literacy.
Liz: Early literacy has gained attention with recent research and different programs. What are some resources you’d recommend to someone if they were interested in learning more about early literacy and the advantage for children?
I might have to email you some because I have a good Google drive full of them. If you’re asking for future parents who want more resources for their kids, surprisingly or not surprisingly Scholastic has a ton of research-backed practices for all sorts of pre-school aged groups. Prior to getting into this I thought Scholastic just did the book fairs at school and they’re just for that age group, but they actually have some great resources on there. And I think if you go to First Book (not First Pages) - that’s actually the book marketplace we use - they actually have a lot of free resources on there that I believe are accessible to anyone and not just those who are signed up to use the marketplace.
Liz: What do you hope to see First Pages accomplish in the next year? 5 years? 10 years?
Kelly: A year: we definitely want to bring on board more partners. At the end of 2017 I think we want to be at the point where we’re supporting 10 partners. So that’s our big one year goal. Five years pie in the sky: within five years I’d like to be working on First Pages full time as my profession because I think after that one year mark we’ll hit a ceiling where that’s all we can sustain with all of us being an all-volunteer board after work, but I know if we had some dedicated time then things could really take off even further than that.
It’s a tough balance where we have to grow those partnerships in line with our fundraising and our book drives, they have to grow together. So that would definitely be the five year plan - if not me (but hopefully me) as a paid staff person whose part time or full time focus is on First Pages. Beyond that we do want to expand into other literacy support programs, not just the book distribution. We started with that [distribution] and we let each partner choose how they’re distributing the books; we wanted to start small and tangible with this so we as an organization can get to know the real needs of the community because we don’t want to just walk in and presume that we know the best ways to help with the early literacy support. This is an easy, low-risk way to get to know a lot of those members of the community and make our connections and then develop future stuff.
I definitely envision having in-person programs for literacy and early literacy groups that perhaps meet at what we would consider right now non-traditional hours for families, just different things like that - whatever we find out would best support families with kids under five, and then just get more involved in the community and make early literacy a community cause and something everybody cares about. I think that ties in with celebrating reading in general and making reading an important thing that everybody thinks about and holds up there with many other values. I would love to see early literacy and reading for young kids incorporated into a lot of the other community celebrations that we do. I think next year we want to get more involved in the holidays because I think kids are super smart and they know what we as adults value based on our actions more than our words. By gifting kids books and being excited about books alongside other toys as presents, that sends a big message to our little ones, and we’d like to get more involved in holiday-type stuff. Holidays, birthdays, just making reading and books this fun big thing because kids aren’t born hating reading - and parents don’t make their kids hate reading - but there are ways we can subtly influence a love of reading from a young age through other fun things.
Liz: If someone wants to get involved, how can they host a book drive, sponsor a bookshelf for book distribution, or volunteer with the organization?
It’s all on the website! first-pages.org There are forms online for book drives and volunteering - it’s just a quick little form letting us know that you’re going to do something, and we are fleshing out our book drive toolkit more and more. We’ve got some of the stuff up [on the website] already. We want to try to make it as easy as possible, so there’s a pre-written letter that you can fill in your details, and we’ll get more visual flyer type stuff up along with the wish list. Our hope is to make it very easy, and for people to know that book drives don’t have to be this big crazy thing: it really could be just you in your cubicle with a box and sending an email not even to your whole floor but to your acquaintances saying, “Hey, I’m collecting books for this, if you have some please bring them in.” Or it could be some big community thing - we’ve had some neighborhoods do neighborhood book swaps and give us the leftovers. So yeah, it can be as little or as big as anybody wants. And then if there are organizations out there that want books for their kids we have some guidelines for what we’re looking for out of those partners - basically the populations that they’re serving - and those are up [on the website] right now as well with an email link to email me!
Thank you so much to Kelly for sitting down with me for this interview! First Pages is a great local organization that you can donate to or get involved with.
You can read more on First Pages and the idea behind it on:
The First Pages blog: https://first-pages.org/category/blog-posts/
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/firstpagesorg
Follow them on Twitter: https://twitter.com/FirstPagesOrg