BY CATHERINE RAINEY
When you begin to read a new book, you embark on an exciting and unknown journey. Page after page, you become enthralled with the characters, the plot and the adventure of where the story will take you. Mesmerized by the choice of words, consumed by the content, it’s easy to get swept up into a whole new world. What will happen next? How will it end?
Consider this: a child in a roughly impoverished neighborhood with nowhere to go after school. It being 2019, they’re flooded with technological alternatives varying from video games to social media. When it comes to fun, reading a book might not be the first option that pops up in a young person’s mind. The experience of exploration and creativity enjoyed while reading a novel seems to have become lost to many youngsters, and the Boys & Girls Clubs organization is trying to reshape this.
“The mission of the Boys & Girls Clubs of South Alabama is to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens,” said Rosa Monteiro, director of academic success at BGCSA. She wants to expand the opportunities for children that revolve around books.
When Monteiro first began her career with the Boys & Girls Clubs (BGC), “CEO Tim Wills talked about the fact that there are no book festivals in the state of Alabama, or the Gulf Coast area, devoted to children. He wanted to change that. This year’s Gulf Coast Children’s Book Festival is the inaugural book festival for us. We want to do everything possible to impact the reading proficiency of children in our area, and ignite a love of reading.”
The idea of the Boys & Girls Clubs began in 1860, with three women in Connecticut who wanted to help the young boys they saw roaming the streets during that time. They began what is now the constant motto for BGC — to create a positive place to feel safe and learn for the youth in the community. It wasn’t until 1906 that an affiliation sprang up, and in 1956 the organization was given a U.S. Congressional charter.
In 1957, the first sector of the South Alabama organization sprang to life in downtown Mobile by B. R. “Babe” Wilson Jr., Arthur Tonsmeire Jr. and Jack Harris. In 1990, Congress approved a name change and recognized girls as part of the cause.
Around 15 percent of Alabama citizens are unable to read. This is partly due to location and lack of access to adequate schooling, unsurprising considering school funding is directly tied to a local community’s wealth. With more programs in place, reading and comprehension for children can start early and improve graduation rates.
Children who are illiterate or have not been introduced to reading by the time they enter elementary school are three times more likely to drop out. Improving children’s lives means improving everyone’s future.
Today in Mobile, the cause revolves around bettering the reading rate among children and sparking a drive to continue that love of reading. Toward that goal, the Gulf Coast Children’s Book Festival will take place at The Grounds on April 4.
“I am so excited about the enthusiasm and support we have encountered with the community in planning our festival,” Monteiro said. “Everyone loves the idea and has been wonderful about supporting and participating in our event. It has been gratifying to see how much our community believes in the importance of reading.”
Numerous vendors and exhibitors will be present, including Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Girl Scouts of America, Boy Scouts of America, Mobile Public Library, Alabama Public Television/PBS and the Literacy Coalition of South Alabama.
Some authors will attend as well, including Sonya Conner, Dr. Karyn Tunks, Alexis Braud and Gloria Duff, to name a few. It’s anticipated that a couple of published children writers also will be present.
The general public is invited, and everyone will be able to leave with at least one free book and enjoy live entertainment at the Storyteller and Entertainment stages. Attendees can even learn new skills at the Illustrator Workshops and small Writing Workshop, then visit some of the many exhibitors and authors who can provide the ultimate reading experience. Almost 3,600 are registered to attend so far!
BGCSA offers a range of programs that include academic support, physical activity, artistic endeavors and even self-esteem assistance. The organization is continuously expanding its programs and offers help to children of all ages and interests. From a town in Connecticut to more than 4,000 clubs and growing, Boys & Girls Clubs have come a long way!
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