and Community Literacy Coalitions
When Margaret Doughty asked about the progress of Books for the Border in Eagle Pass last fall, I told her the story. After spending more than a year telling people about the home library concept, my church in Fort Worth (Western Hills Baptist) brought twenty-five small wooden book cases to Eagle Pass in March of 2008. The idea was simple: provide families who live in poverty a place to keep books as well as the beginnings of a home library.
Why Eagle Pass? Eagle Pass is the seat of government for Maverick County. Like adjoining Dimmit and Zavala Counties, this rural county is one of the seven poorest in Texas. Add Hidalgo, Together for Hope Presidio, Starr and Willacy and you’ve got the Texas focus of a national community development on the twenty poorest counties in the country. is a twenty-year effort to get those twenty counties off that list. That’s what got me to Eagle Pass in 2007 – looking for a way to connect a literacy project with a larger community development process. Community development begins with input from the community. I spent time interviewing community leaders in Eagle Pass – from program leaders in early childhood to adult learning, political leaders, librarians, and those in the faith community. A tornado in April of 2007 had created new channels of cooperation among persons in Eagle Pass as well as with outside groups. In fact, the weekend of our family reading fair was preceded by two days of rehabbing a house damaged by the earlier storm.
The bookcases are simple in design – two twenty-inch shelves approximately two feet high. We assembled twenty-five units after consultation with AVANCE of Eagle Pass. They gave input in book selection – mostly Spanish. The focus of the project is parents reading to children – not second language learning. AVANCE’s process of home visits also provided a simple way to measure the use of the home library. We even sought input from the families about the colors of the bookcases: red, blue, green and tan were selected.
On Thursday and Friday of that spring break week in 2008, we spent the days putting up sheet rock in a house less than a mile from ground zero in that devastating tornado. The wind whipped the metal structure of the elementary school so severely that an adjoining site was chosen for new construction. In the evenings we painted the bookcases and did other preparation for the family reading fair.
The big day arrived with a parade! Families left the downtown area - site of the International Friendship Parade - just in time to arrive at the Fellowship Hall of the nearby Methodist Church. The weather was perfect. Sixteen of twenty-five invited families participated. Grandparents and parents, children of all ages, and one dog launched the first Books for the Border family reading fair.
After the families registered their attendance they selected one of the brightly colored bookcases. Then the children painted their names or flowers or other designs on the bookcases. A few Dora the Explorer stickers were included as well. The goal was to personalize the bookcases so that they would be “owned” by the families. Next the families selected their books. Finally, everyone’s attention was focused on the center of the room where parents and children were simply reading. No one was in a hurry to leave. AVANCE prepared refreshments. The volunteers from several churches helped with painting and reading. Smiles on faces indicated that the first Books for the Border family reading fair was a success.
In the months following the first Eagle Pass event, a similar event was held in Starr County. Like Maverick County, this border area is comprised of much poverty. Three hundred people participated in the family reading fiesta. Volunteers from First Baptist Church, Tyler, provided home libraries to seventy families. Subsequent family reading fairs in Eagle Pass (2009) and Progreso have resulted in many more families receiving books and bookcases. Summer events scheduled for Mission and El Paso will result in scores more families encouraged to read at home with new resources.
Back to Eagle Pass
Margaret Doughty had been working with District 19 State Senator Carlos I. Uresti’s office in Eagle Pass to stimulate literacy. At a January 20th meeting of community stakeholders, Margaret challenged the people of Eagle Pass to begin a literacy coalition. They did just that. Rev. Harlene Sadler (pastor of First United Methodist Church in Eagle Pass) volunteered to serve as the leader. She convened a second meeting in March – the day before the second family reading fair. At the meeting I mentioned that Literacy ConneXus had submitted a request to Dollar General to fund six additional family reading fairs in Eagle Pass this year. Rev. Sadler offered that the events would take place with or without that funding. Sounds like a coalition to me. Community leaders have rallied around the simple gift of home libraries to families in Eagle Pass.
Literacy Texas will provide a workshop to encourage family reading fairs in any community: Books for the Border and Beyond… The workshop will be a featured session at the Literacy Texas annual conference to be held July 27-28 in Austin. Visit the Literacy Texas web site for more information.
About the Author
Lester Meriwether is the Executive Director of Literacy ConneXus – a faith-based organization that encourages congregations to help persons with literacy needs. He is also President of Literacy Texas. His passions include reading to his granddaughter and building bookcases.