For the past 18 years, former journalist Eileen Bailey has been instilling her passion for reading in Phoenix third-graders through KidsRead, a program she founded and now operates in eight schools in the Osborn and Balsz school districts.
“My secret goal is to make lifelong readers and lifelong learners of these students,” Bailey said. “The thing about these kids is they are just so full of promise. Third grade is just ideal. They are just little sponges absorbing all you say to them.”
Bailey isn’t working alone. Over the years, she has corralled many well-known Arizonans to help her, both through a chili and blues themed annual fundraiser, which raises funds to purchase books, and on school campuses with students.
KidsRead brings guest readers into schools for family book breakfasts eight times a year, and gives each student a new book of their own to keep after each event. For some of the children, it may be the first book they’ve ever owned.
“That book is something personal, something to make them feel special, something to call their own, and it encourages them to open it up,” said Channel Powe, a Balsz Elementary School District Governing Board member. “The students enjoy being treated like a VIP. If you want to have a program to enthuse your kids and get them excited about reading, this would definitely be it.”
Q: What led you to create KidsRead?
A: I’m a writer, an author and journalist in Phoenix. I’ve always been interested in lifelong reading.
I had just met a principal and superintendent at the Osborn Elementary School District in Phoenix in the mid ‘90s and they were telling me how the complexion of the school district had changed and that these children were very impoverished.
They’re the children of the working poor. Their families are doing well to clothe, feed them, get them to school and have a roof over their heads, and they don’t really have books of their own.
That just sort of stayed with me. I thought about it, and knew I could do this.
At that time, I was marketing director at Phoenix College. I met with the Superintendent of Osborn School District, Dr. Wilma Basnett, and she didn’t say we’ve never done that before, or that would be too difficult to administer, or any of those things – she said yes.
We began with one school in one district in 1996, and now all these years later we’re in eight schools in two districts – Osborn and Balsz.
Q: Who are some of your KidsRead readers?
A: The people we choose to be our guest readers are always role models. I want people who are going to inspire the students in some way.
We’ve had such great readers, including Dr. Kellie Warren, CEO of Florence Crittenton. She’s really fabulous and the kids just love her. They all gather around and make sure they get a hug when she gives them their book.
Merrill Mahaffey, an artist, has read to students, journalist/author Jana Bommersbach, former Phoenix Sun Tom Chambers, baseball star/author Joe Garagiola, and Dr. Charles Emerson with Arizona State University’s Religious Studies department.
Broadcast journalist Carey Pena was one of our first readers, and one of our most successful readers. We haven’t had any duds. Some of the readers, the kids just really resonate to.
Betsy Bombeck and her family have been supportive of KidsRead from day one.
Q: Why is this so important to you?
A: My identical twin sister Kathleen lives in San Diego and she and I just haunted our town library when we were growing up.
Our town librarian, Miss Geraldine Smith, had a summer reading contest, and my sister and I always won that contest because we read hundreds of books while the other kids would read a paltry 30 or 40 books.
Miss Smith tested us. She had a stand by her desk, and she’d have us tell her about each book, so she knew that we had read them. We were so proud that we were such good readers. It just means a lot. I think we really discovered the joy of lifelong reading and lifelong learning then.
My efforts with KidsRead are dedicated to Miss Geraldine Smith.
Q: How many new books has KidsRead donated to children?
A: It’s right around 29,000.
At the KidsRead Hot Chili, Cool Blues, Art Party fundraiser at the Hotel Valley Ho in November, we netted $70,000. That will pay for quite a few books.
When I began KidsRead, I simply hammered everyone I ever met.
I had an enormous sphere of influence, and I had written the book called “Arizona Celebrity Cookbook” which featured 70 well-known personalities including people of means, authors and so on. Many of them got involved with KidsRead, like action-adventure novelist Clive Cussler.
The first year, I wrote to Audrey Geisel, the widow of Dr. Seuss, and she sent me money to help buy a lot of Dr. Seuss books for the first year.
We give Dr. Seuss books away in March and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” in December.
Q: How did you come up with your chili fundraiser?
A: I’ve written for many years on food, restaurant reviews, and about chefs. I thought that a fun fundraiser would be really informal – not a gala where people have to dress up. What would be an informal thing to eat – chili.
I knew my chef friends would make chili and they all have – including chef/restaurant owner Vincent Guerithault, French chili. We had 30 volunteers for this fundraiser.
It’s really opened a lot of eyes to the situation in the schools, and what these children are facing.
Q: What do you find most rewarding about KidsRead?
A: The students faces when they get their first book. They always say thank you, and they’re just real tickled. Their parents are grateful too, and really neat to talk with.
We get the most darling thank you letters that are so funny and sweet. Some of them say I’m not going to let my brother or sister read it.
One thing KidsRead has done is dramatically increased library usage at the schools.
The first few years, when the funding was stronger, we had the City of Phoenix Public Library involved and head librarian Toni Garvey had staff come to sign up families for library cards during KidsRead. I’d love to start that again and plan to talk to the Phoenix city manager about it.
Q: What are you planning next?
A: I want students to be authors and create their own book. I’m going to bring writers and illustrators in to show them how we go about doing it and it will take about five months to learn the process.
This next school year, we will publish cookbooks written and illustrated by the kids for each of the four Balsz schools we serve.
We’re going to have Executive Chef Chuck Wiley of ZuZu at Hotel Valley Ho come in and talk to them about recipes and nutrition.
A lot of the students are very poor, but know they can eat well. There’s a garden at Griffith school and the kids are excited about gardening and raising vegetables.
Wiley will work from the angle that you can grow your food and you can help your family with inexpensive items that a child can make like a vegetable quesadilla.
(The interview was edited for length and clarity.)