July 2016 Volunteer Spotlight
A Conversation with Carol Elbert: For the Love of Literacy
“What are you reading now?”
For long-time Ames resident Carol Elbert, this friendly inquiry is more than just a great conversation starter. In addition to her own passion for books, learning and reading, she has made it her life’s work to keep literacy front and center in her local community.
After 25 years as a youth services coordinator with the Ames Public Library (APL), a reviewer of children’s books, and countless other contributions, Elbert continues to support language and literacy development in her retirement. Often this takes place through her involvement with the nonprofit Raising Readers in Story County (RRSC), which Elbert helped create.
RRSC started, simply enough, as a pilot project of Christie Vilsack’s Iowa Stories 2000. This initiative began with an advisory panel representing local organizations, with a goal to review and discuss existing local literacy programs—and concluding that early literacy was the area of need to focus on.
From there, a handful of dedicated early literacy warriors took up the baton, with considerable support from the APL and the Ames Morning Rotary. But as with most new endeavors, the organization took a while to find its momentum. “In the early days, we were making it up as we went along.” Elbert says with a smile. “We weren’t an organization yet. We had to become a nonprofit.”
Now, thanks to those hardworking, committed volunteers—and a long and growing list of organizations, businesses and groups that believe in and support its mission—this award-winning, 501(c)3 nonprofit is a strong, flourishing presence in Story County. With 25 partners, a board of directors, and a small staff, it’s now able to offer more than a dozen exciting, creative programs to encourage literacy for Story County families.
But while the programs are an excellent start, the real work must take place in the home, Elbert says.
“Research shows that a predictor of a child’s school success is the number of words he or she hears by the age of three,” she explains. “And lots of factors are involved here, such as quality preschooling and normal daily conversations in the home.”
Not to mention the irreplaceable quality time between a parent, a child and a book. “You don’t just hand a book over to a child and think it’ll change his or her life,” says Elbert. “It also needs to be part of the bonding experience and the loving fun between the parent and the child. And there are ways a parent can help build on the story and enrich the story experience for the child.
“In addition, books tend to have a richer vocabulary than general conversations that take place in the home,” she continues. “Children also learn how to cooperate, solve problems and socialize through books.”
And RRSC believes that you simply can’t start too soon. The organization partners with APL and the Mary Greeley Medical Center (MGMC) to help families get on the right literacy track literally from day one. APL provides MGMC with gift packets that contain a new board book and helpful resource material designed specifically for new parents, and their new little future reader. The packet includes information about RRSC and the message that it’s never too early to read to a baby. And the literacy fun doesn’t stop there, with ongoing opportunities available for toddlers, preschoolers and beyond.
The past decades of working closely with families is not something Elbert takes for granted, with many lovely memories and shared experiences to show for it all. Donating a bag of new books to create a first home library for a six-year-old girl and her mother as they received their Habitat for Humanity home is a poignant example. “It was the first time we provided a gift in this situation. It was such a joyful time, and a privilege to be a part of it.”
While Elbert is loving and making the most of her retirement to travel, take classes and learn new skills, she also plans to continue volunteering for RRSC. “I’ve got more time to focus on it now that I’ve retired,” she says.
And, of course, she will continue to read for pleasure. She enjoys mysteries, historical fiction and nonfiction, and biographies. “Children’s books are still my hobby.”
“Carol is a wizard at matching people with good books,” says her RRSC co-founder, Carolyn Jons. “She knows children’s books also delight adults, and sometimes she reads a special book at the start of a board or team meeting. For many years she wrote a monthly feature, ‘What’s New in Children’s Books,’ for the RRSC website.”
And what’s next for RRSC? “In the coming years I hope we’ll be able to add staff and maybe someday even have our own building,” says Elbert. “It was run by volunteers and one part-time staff person for so long. Now we’ve made good steps toward sustainability, and there are now more individuals carrying the load. The people we’re working with are passionate with good ideas. They understand that literacy is very powerful and improves human lives.
“Best of all,” she adds with feeling, “we’re making a difference for children.”