“Every one of you has amazing stories inside you.”
Children’s book author Natalie Kinsey-Warnock is standing in the gym of the Waterford Elementary School, speaking to a group from the school’s Summer Learning Program. She adds, “Family stories are the best kind of stories but we need to write them down so they won’t get lost.”
Almost all of Kinsey-Warnock’s books are based on true events from her childhood growing up on a farm in the Northeast Kingdom or stories handed down in her family for generations, such as the award winning “The Bear Who Heard Crying.”
Kinsey-Warnock shows the children quilts made by her grandmother, who inspired “The Canada Geese Quilt,” and then makes her young audience shriek with delight when she tells of meeting a bear while riding her bike and the story of her granduncles who hitched a bull to an old-fashioned buggy. Kinsey-Warnock ends her presentation with a reminder, “I promise you that each of you also has stories in you good enough to become books.”
At the end of the talk, the children are invited to choose two free books from displays arranged around the gym. They call to each other as they browse, “Hey, look at this one!” “ I found a book about the planets!” and then clamber back up to the gym bleachers to begin reading. The presentation they enjoyed on this July afternoon is just one of many sponsored by the Children’s Literacy Foundation, and Kinsey-Warnock has been with the nonprofit organization almost since its beginning.
The Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF) got its start when a successful Boston management consultant named Duncan McDougall decided to begin a new chapter in his life. McDougall had been a writer, a teacher, a tutor of refugees, and was an MBA graduate. He’d enjoyed his work as a consultant, but now he began to consider ways to make a positive impact on the world. McDougall believed in the transforming power of literacy and knew that children in some rural areas may have less access to resources. He talked to teachers, administrators, reading directors, and librarians. He decided to focus on two of his favorite places, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Both states beckon tourists with images of skiing, hiking, pristine scenery, and toylike villages. Both also include enclaves with populations that have lived in poverty for generations. In 1998 McDougall moved to a farmhouse in New Hampshire. This was the beginning of the Children’s Literacy Foundation. Its mission would be to “inspire a love of reading and writing among low income, at-risk, and rural children.” McDougall was the volunteer executive director and only staff member. By 2021, CLiF included five staff members, 22 directors, and many volunteers. The foundation also works with more than 65 presenters. Like Kinsey-Warnock, many of them are children’s book authors.
At last count, the organization has touched the lives of more than 350,000 children and given away roughly $9 million worth of books. Their many programs include work with libraries, schools, daycare centers, and shelters for the homeless.
During the school year, CLiF offers Year of the Book grants to qualifying schools, preschools, and daycare providers. Applicants for the grant must show that while their schools may have a diverse population, at least 35 percent will qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Winners of a grant will receive $25,000 to use for books, teacher training, and other activities that promote literacy. During the summer months, CLiF goes to where the children are: summer camps, especially those which include qualifying children; playgrounds; child care sites; libraries; and swimming pools. Even the best storytellers might wonder if they could compete with a pool on a warm summer day. The Foundation’s Communications Manager, Erika Nichols-Frazer, smiles when asked how that works. “It just happens,” she says. “Our presenters are engaging, everyone seems to love listening to the stories, and the kids are eager to choose books to keep.”
If CLiF understands the value of literacy, they also appreciate the value of family connections. The organization works with five prisons in Vermont and New Hampshire creating special celebrations for family visiting days with food, music, games, and time for incarcerated parents to read to their children. When children are unable to visit, parents are invited to choose books and to write a personal message inside the book, which will be mailed to their child. Inmates may also record their storytelling so children can look through their donated book while listening to a parent read it.
Many benefit from the work of the foundation, but the focus has always been on their mission statement. They avoid singling out children but take steps to provide books to agencies that work with foster children and others who might be struggling.
When COVID closed down the country, CLiF found ways to adapt. They left books at homeless shelters and food pantries. Libraries could request book donations and hang the books outside the building in plastic bags with labels on the bags to let families know the book levels. Virtual and interactive events replaced in-person programs.
McDougall and his staff have made CLiF work without help from government agencies. “We have many donors, both companies and individuals, who have remained loyal to us for many years.”
When asked if he ever missed his former position as a management consultant, McDougall hesitates for a minute. “I sometimes miss the challenge of solving those problems, and I miss my colleagues.” Does he have any plans to go back to it? This time the answer comes right away. “Nope, this has been too much fun.”
For more information about CLiF, go to clifonline.org.