Picking up a new book for the first time, leafing through the crisp pages and taking in that ‘new book’ smell is something most of us have done. It’s a connection we make before we dive into a new world or whichever adventure the book will take us on.
Ida H. Acuna-Garza, EdD, wants to inspire that kind of excitement for books in children across the region. In her role as the chief executive officer for the non-profit South Texas Literacy Coalition, she wants everyone to understand how important reading is and the earlier, the better.
How it all began
The non-profit organization first launched in 2008. Congressman Ruben Hinojosa and the delegation at the time toured countries across Asia. They found that they all had one thing in common: a 97 percent high school graduation rate.
What was their secret? The answer seemed so simple, early reading and early writing equals school success.
Something had to change. The area needed to do better to improve graduation rates of Valley students.
At the time, through research, local leaders found that Rio Grande Valley low-income communities didn’t have access to books. And there were a lot of disadvantaged households Valley wide.
“Many local leaders came together and there began the South Texas Literacy Coalition,” Acuna-Garza said. “There would be a big outreach program and it would be to get new, free books to children whose families couldn’t afford to buy books.”
If the students were not avid readers or reading for fun, they were likely struggling, Acuna-Garza explained. If by eighth grade, if a student cannot read at grade level, they are more likely to drop out, she added.
In the Community
Eleven years later, with the help of valuable partnerships like Gear-Up, Region One, Reading is Fundamental and area schools, the non-profit now provides up to 60,000 books annually.
The organization is run by five employees and many volunteers and serves the Rio Grande Valley. From Brownsville to Laredo, the nonprofit is enriching the lives of thousands.
“A lot of this work is very much opportunity-based,” Jonathan Vasquez, associate director, said about the outreach.
Outreach includes book giveaways in rural libraries or major events like FESTIBA held annually at UTRGV in Edinburg.
“If we have similar ideas, goals and objectives, we come together and collaborate and do something to give back.”
They visit small towns that don’t have easy access to new books and hold book festivals. They partner with small community libraries and encourage families to start their own tiny libraries.
Funding Drives Literacy
All this costs money and the nonprofit has various fundraising initiatives. While the South Texas Coalition relies on grants and buys books through the National Book Bank at a discount, there is a need for donations in order to serve even more families.
“We are funded by mostly grants and partnerships we have,” Vasquez said. “Some are fee-for-services, and we have fundraisers where we educate people about the importance of literacy.”
Vasquez hopes more people in a position to give realize that they are investing in the future of this area. They are also helping create a more literate workforce.
“We want people to consider giving on a regular basis and know that every penny is spent down here,” Acuna-Garza said.
The coalition had been based out of a 500-square-foot space where they kept thousands of books in storage units nearby. In need of a larger space, they recently moved into a more than 2,000-square-foot building. The ample new space will allow them to organize books more easily.
Books arrive by the pallets and unloading them is time consuming and laborious. The group also sorts books by age group, organizes them and prepares for the next festival or event.
Volunteers are always welcomed as well as donations, Acuna-Garza encouraged and added that $100 helps purchase 40 new books.
“I’m a humanitarian,” Acuna-Garza said. “All kids have that potential to be great, you just have to give them an opportunity. If we can get a book into their hands, even all the way out there (rural communities), then that’s great.”