Only 54 percent of Berkshire County third-graders are reading proficiently.
It's a startling statistic. It's also why early childhood literacy is a priority issue for Berkshire United Way.
Our goal is to have 90 percent of all Berkshire County students reading proficiently by third grade, and we are working toward that goal with the community through the Pittsfield Promise and Chapter One ... Our Towns, Our Kids, Our Future.
The heart of our 2016 Day of Caring is 50 book houses, which will be installed this month in public places throughout the county and filled with free reading materials for young children. Based on the concept of "take-a-book, leave-a-book," families will have the opportunity to pick up or drop off books any time of the day or night, all year long — even when schools and libraries are closed.
We estimate that the book houses will help 12,000 children in Berkshire County read more each year. With over 90 volunteers involved, this is a community-led and self-sustaining project that demonstrates a commitment to the essential role of literacy in our lives.
Each book house is weatherproof, can hold up to 100 children's books, and will include informational resources on early literacy for families. Jack Driscoll of Geary Builders designed them, with materials provided by L.P. Adams, and they were assembled by volunteers from Sabic and JRL Construction.
Larry Harnett, vice president and general counsel at Sabic told me, "Our employees were very eager to support this project, especially given its focus on setting the stage for academic success and the future of our community."
Volunteer "town captains" identified the location of each book house and obtained the necessary approvals for installation.
More than 30 local businesses have signed on as "caretakers" of the book houses, which involves hosting book drives to keep them stocked with age-appropriate materials, ensuring regular upkeep of the structures, and promoting their book house within the community.
Kacy Westwood, "caretaker" of a book house to be installed at the American Legion in Berkshire Village, has partnered with the Lanesborough Public Library.
"I've been enthusiastic about the national book house movement for years," she said, "so when Berkshire United Way offered a chance to be caretaker of a book house, I was thrilled."
Lenox Memorial Middle and High School sophomores Sarah Fenton and Matthew Heim are "co-captains" of a book house at the Lenox Community Center. They partnered with Kim Graham, the center's director.
"I got involved with this project because I think helping children gain access to free books is very important. It's a great way to bring the community together and everyone will benefit," Fenton said.
"I have always loved the excitement of getting a new book," Heim added. "But I also know that there are some families who can't afford to buy books. The book houses ensure that every kid can have the opportunity to open new worlds by reading a new book."
Stockbridge's "town captain" is the Rev. Sam Smith, priest-in-charge of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, whose book house will be placed in the churchyard at the center of town.
"There is no better investment than the one we make in our children," he said. "The successes of children in education transform into success in life."
Twenty area businesses are participating in the Day of Caring by contributing 10 percent of their sales on May 20, or giving a generous one-time gift to support childhood literacy. I encourage you to shop and dine at these businesses, which will display a "We Care" Day of Caring 2016 decal and are listed at berkshireunitedway.org/we-care-business-support.
The 2016 Day of Caring will culminate in a festive party from 7 to 11 p.m. May 20 at Hancock Shaker Village. This Movers + Shakers celebration, sponsored by Sabic, General Dynamics Mission Systems, Onyx Specialty Papers, Greylock Federal Credit Union, and Savory Harvest Catering, will feature a dance party led by DJ BFG, hearty hors d'oeuvres and cash bar.
All proceeds will benefit Berkshire United Way's countywide early literacy efforts. Please join us in support of our children's futures.
Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, berkshireunitedway.org.