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Eye color, hair color, a name...and the love of reading?

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Kent County parents and a passionate community program pass on a gift that lasts a lifetime
Rebecca and Josh Johnson enjoying reading time together in their great-grandmother's rocking chair, c. 1998

Rebecca and Josh Johnson enjoying reading time together in their great-grandmother's rocking chair, c. 1998 /Emily Clingman

Rock and Read bundles ready for delivery

Rock and Read bundles ready for delivery /Jane Mead

"A purse is worthless if you can't fit a book in it."

So said twenty-three-year-old Rebecca Johnson to her mother Emily Clingman, a book-loving journalist living in Fort Collins, Colorado, while perusing purse options at a store.

Johnson comes from a family in which the love of reading is passed down like heirloom tomato seeds or a Radio Flyer wagon. Clingman, whose own mother “would stay up late at night and read under the covers with a flashlight as a little girl,” home schooled her daughter until fourth grade. In just a few short years they checked out over 4,000 books from the library.

“We brought books everywhere,” Clingman says of raising her children. “We lived across the street from a lovely park for many years while my children were little and we often packed some snacks and books and sat in the park for a few hours reading.”

Like Clingman, many parents acknowledge the importance of reading to their children. Not everyone is aware, however, of the benefits of reading to a child starting at birth.

That's why the Kent Reading Council started the Rock and Read program in 1988. Emily Clingman, a Kent County native, was an early recipient.

The Rock and Read mission is to visit mothers of newborns in the hospital to promote reading to their children immediately in order to create a love of reading. Along with thousands of other mothers in the program's early years, Clingman received a friendly visit and a packet with books, a reading list, bookstore coupons and information about reading to her child.

“Research has shown that children who are read to from infancy learn to read faster and with greater ease than children who have not had similar opportunities,” says Jane Mead, Rock and Read's current chairperson and a Kent Reading Council board member. She is also a teacher at Assumption BVM School in Belmont.

The original leader of Rock and Read was Mary Jo Haskins, a retired reading teacher, Grand Rapids Public Schools principal and student teacher supervisor at Grand Valley State University. As a reading teacher, Haskins observed that students who couldn't read had difficulty performing in other subjects as well, which often led to behavior issues and disengagement. Haskins saw her students gain success in reading ability but not in comprehension, and she believed that children would have fewer problems reading later in life if they began receiving instruction at a younger age.

Until the mid 1990s, Haskins led a dedicated team of council members and volunteers in fund raising efforts and compiling the packets, illustrated by Haskins' son Thomas Birks. (Grand Rapidians might know Birks better today for his ArtPrize co-creations Nessie and the Steam Pig). To ensure that each new mother would receive a visit, packet distributors were assigned specific days of the month to visit area hospitals.

“One of the books I received was Mama Mama by Jean Marzollo,” Clingman shares. “I loved, loved, loved that book. It was so sweet and the illustrations were gorgeous. After 23 years and three children, we have acquired and passed on countless children's books. I've hung on to just a few and Mama Mama is one of them.”

For a while, local elementary school students wrote books for the Rock and Read babies. Other students participated in the Penny Pal fundraiser, contributing their coins for collection by the Council. In every respect, Rock and Read was and continues to be a community effort.

After being dormant for some years, Rock and Read was rejuvenated on December 24, 2002, with the donation of a batch of book bags to Metropolitan Hospital. Over the next seven years, about 100 books were donated to the hospital every month.

Since then, fifth graders from Rockford and Assumption BVM have helped Rock and Read volunteers make fleece blankets for the new mothers and babies as well as participated in fund raising efforts for HELP Pregnancy Crisis Aid Center. Grants, individuals, student fund raising and United Way continue to help fund Rock and Read. Even former first lady Laura Bush, prompted by a request from Rock and Read co-chairperson Linda Damstra, supported the program through a letter urging parents to read to their newborns.

According to Haskins, when a mother reads to her baby, not only is a loving bond formed, but the child starts to integrate “the pattern of the mother's voice, the rhythm of the language, the music of the language...Starting [reading instruction] at birth is the thing that can really change society.”

While Haskins likely has more time to spend with her five children and five grandchildren now that she is retired, her passion still remains with the Rock and Read mission.

“I know that reading is the window to the world,” she says. “If you can read, you can do anything.”

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