Kari Rosenfeld has met children who've never had books of their own.
“There are kids that don’t know what a book is," she said. "We have to go through, ‘Here’s a cover of a book, this is how you hold a book.’ It’s horrible."
Rosenfeld is the South Valley area manager for SMART, a statewide nonprofit literacy program. It pairs community volunteers with students in pre-K to third grade to practice reading aloud. The program started in Albany in 1992 and is currently in three area schools.
But there are plans to expand.
“We’re really focusing our attention in Albany,” Rosenfeld said, noting that a major SMART goal is getting books into students' hands.
A 2016 New York University Steinhardt study reported that children’s books in low-income neighborhoods in five sample cities were in short supply. And while not every student in the local program is classified as low-income, they still receive two free books a month. So far this year, Rosenfeld said, the program has given away 2,100 books between Linn and Benton counties.
“We had a woman tell a story during a presentation. She was homeless as a child and she always carried her backpack around,” Rosenfeld said. “They asked her why she carried it everywhere and she said, ‘Because my SMART books are in there.’ It’s really valuable for these children to have their own books.”
SMART receives no money from the school districts it serves. Instead, it’s funded through grants and donations. To help purchase books locally, Rosenfeld has to raise funds.
“It’s one of those things where if we could go out and buy books for every kid we would, but we can’t do that,” said Matt Bennett, owner of Albany restaurant Sybaris. Bennett volunteered to hold a March 31 fundraising dinner for SMART to help make a dent in the need for children’s books.
“Ironically, SMART started in Albany, but we’ve never held an event there,” Rosenfeld said.
The dinner features five courses and costs $60 per person. Rosenfeld has secured a matching donation for whatever is raised during the evening.
“The food was donated, staff is donating their time, and servers are donating their tips that night,” Bennett said. “It’s a nice small-town thing.”
SMART is also always looking for classroom volunteers. Readers spend one hour a week — not teaching children to read, but reading with them.
“They say that from kindergarten to third grade, children learn to read. From fourth grade on, they’re reading to learn,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s so important to get them to love to read and love the story. Reading out loud and helping them build that confidence helps.”
According to the Eugene Research Institute, fifth-graders who participated in SMART are 60 percent more likely to reach state reading benchmarks than those who don't.
“It’s a great experience for the volunteers but it’s such excitement for the students,” Rosenfeld said. “When they see the volunteer come in, they just light up.”
For more information on volunteering for SMART, visit smartoregon.org.