The leaders of Asheville-based children’s literacy nonprofit Read to Succeed Asheville/Buncombe knew they had to make a change. Although the group’s mission is to close the opportunity gap between Black and white children, it had never hired a full-time Black staffer since being founded in 2009, and its last Black board president was founder Isaac Coleman.
“When you are doing the kind of work that we do, it is disingenuous to do it without Black leadership,” says Co-Executive Director Jessica McLean, who is white. So in December 2020, Read to Succeed came together to shift the makeup of its personnel and relationships with the community.
The nonprofit subsequently hired Jaimee Stanley, a Black woman, as co-executive director in June 2021. Its board was also expanded so that more than half of its 13 members were Black — including board president Ile Adaramola.
Read to Succeed is not the only children-focused nonprofit in Western North Carolina to focus more intentionally on closing race-based opportunity gaps in recent years. OpenDoors of Asheville is launching AVL Rise, a peer mentoring program in which high school students of color improve their own literacy by teaching elementary school students. Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC has expanded into eight additional counties and signed an agreement with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the Qualla Boundary.
According to OpenDoors founder and CEO Jen Langdon Ramming, part of that shift has come as a silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic. “The blessing of COVID is that it’s slowed time down,” she explains. “We can prioritize mindfulness and meditation and yoga instead of pushing hard for an end-of-grade test.”
Words and wisdom
How much fun can reading be? Just ask the kids who participate in Claxton Elementary School’s Busy Bees Afterschool Program with support from Read to Succeed tutors.
“I like to take turns reading and be nice,” says third grader Ashley C.
Meanwhile, fourth grader Qudair S. singles out One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish as one of his favorites. “I don’t know what it’s called but I know the book by Dr. Seuss,” he says.
For McLean and Stanley, instilling a joy for reading is critical not only for children’s literacy but also for their mental health. That’s why Read to Succeed prioritizes books written by and about people of color that both reflect everyday lived experience and celebrate excellence.
Thanks to a $90,000 Dogwood Health Trust grant received in November 2021, Read to Succeed has been able to collaborate even more closely with children, their families and the community. In the coming months, the nonprofit will expand its focus from grades K-3 to work with children from birth through 5 years old. And it’s already launched a new after-school program at the Arthur R. Edington Center. Every week, staff members receive literacy training from Stanley and two other teachers and pass on those lessons to children.
“In those trainings, you have grandparents and aunties and uncles that live in the community and then work in the community center in the afternoons,” Stanley says. “They take that knowledge home to their grandkids, or their kids or their nieces and nephews, and that is the beautiful ripple effect.”
Much more is on the horizon for Read to Succeed. On Thursday, March 31, over 100 families will gather at the YWCA to enjoy food, games and a mini-book fair. The nonprofit will also belatedly celebrate its 10th anniversary Sunday, May 1, with a luncheon at the Edington Center. Asheville native and children’s author J.P. Miller will speak about her lifelong love of reading and her Leaders Like Us and Black Stories Matter series.
Reading is also central to OpenDoors’ commitment to closing the race-based opportunity gap. “When you’re learning to read, you’re not accessing the world,” says Ramming. “Reading to learn, you are.”
The organization’s newest effort targets often-overlooked literacy gaps in high school students. AVL Rise is a “fresh to death peer tutoring hip-hop literacy program” that trains high schoolers of color to teach literacy to elementary school students. The initiative is modeled on Reach Incorporated, a successful program created by former social worker Mark Hecker in Washington, D.C. Buncombe County has given OpenDoors $750,000 over the next three years to run the program — the first public money the organization has received since its inception in 2009.
“The outcomes for the older kids are actually far more dramatic, and that’s what makes this program really special,” Ramming says. “You get kids who can grow three to four years in their basic literacy levels, because one of the greatest ways to learn is to teach.”
AVL Rise Program Director Jasmine Middleton, an Asheville native and OpenDoors alumna, says she and her staff will focus on more than just reading. For example, because student tutors will be compensated, their training includes financial literacy lessons. “We want our students to be able to manage their funds well,” Middleton says.
Education Director David Kennedy will bring both his educational background and skills as a rap and hip-hop artist to teach high school students rhyming and rhythmic techniques they will pass along to their mentees. And Tia Searles, an OpenDoors alumna, specifically trained in yoga and mindfulness to incorporate mental health and physical well-being into the high schoolers’ preservice training.
“To us, education includes enrichment, having secure housing, having access to healthy foods, mental health [and] physical health,” Ramming says.
Even though pretraining activities for AVL Rise have started, OpenDoors is still recruiting high school students for the program, with a focus on ninth and tenth graders. Interested students can apply at avl.mx/bcf.
A bigger family
Mississippi native Lelia Duncan came in as the new president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of WNC in April 2020, just as the world was shutting down. “As we were dealing with that, we were also dealing with doubling our footprint size and almost tripling our staff,” she recalls.
Rather than postponing these plans, Duncan and her staff doubled down. A Dogwood Health Trust grant received in December 2020 allowed them to meet their goals by expanding into Avery, Clay, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Rutherford, Transylvania and Yancey counties.
Duncan says perhaps the most exciting part of this expansion is a collaboration with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on the Qualla Boundary. To ensure an equitable partnership, the organization has implemented a training module for staff specific to Cherokee culture and has multiple tribe members on its Qualla Boundary team. Most importantly, their first matches for “Littles” from Cherokee Elementary School will be with “Bigs” from Cherokee High School.
“The superintendent [Michael Murray of Cherokee Central School] said to me, ‘I take this really seriously, because we are raising a nation here.’ And those words have echoed and informed every step we’ve made,” Duncan says. BBBS will start matching Bigs and Littles at the end of this school year to have a robust program in place by next fall.
Equity informs how the nonprofit makes matches more generally, but finding the right mentors for children ages 6-15 is not as simple as connecting those participants with adults who look like them or have similar interests. Parental preferences must be taken into account. Duncan notes that both vaccination status and political leanings have emerged as important factors to consider when matching mentors and mentees.
“Western North Carolina is very unique with its extreme conservative views as well as extreme liberal views,” she says. “We have to take our time and best balance that.”
Even as BBBS of WNC expanded into new counties, the organization had to deal with losing volunteers due to the pandemic. To reinvigorate relationships, the organization created Club Summit, a series of outings that combine physical exercise, learning about nature and good land stewardship. Since the first outing — a nature hike in Dupont State Recreational Forest — in March 2021, matches have gone kayaking and canoeing on Lake Junaluska and Lake James, as well as snow tubing in Hendersonville, Sapphire Valley and Maggie Valley.
To keep that momentum going through the next stage of the pandemic, Duncan says, it’s critical for WNC residents to support area children through donations of money and time. “If it’s gotten too much for you, imagine how it is for a child,” she says. “We need people now.”