Every day, 61% of the students who belong to low-income families will leave school and return to a home with absolutely no reading materials, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. For the impoverished Appalachian region, this statistic quickly reshapes the outlook of poverty in Appalachia—from being simply a problem, to a pandemic.
The full extent of Appalachian poverty is rarely realized, especially in regard to the region’s younger generations. It is not difficult to discern that book access is not high on the list of priorities for low-income families, and unfortunately, this places their children at risk of being functionally illiterate for the rest of their lives.
Understanding that this was a big issue facing Appalachian children, Kim Bradley and Tracy Griffith founded the Appalachian Literacy Initiative in Bradley’s garage in 2018.
Located in Bristol, Tennessee, the Appalachian Literacy Initiative seeks to encourage literacy and foster a love of reading by providing the region’s children with free books.
“It’s truly our passion,” said Hannah Smith, the operations manager for ALI, “We’re all avid readers, we just want our kids to love to read, too.”
ALI has made it possible for third, fourth and fifth-grade teachers to receive six books per quarter to add to their classroom libraries. Students in their classroom receive one book per quarter to keep, which they get to pick themselves from the selections provided.
By the end of the school year, teachers receive a total of 24 books for their libraries, and students receive a total of four books for their personal collections.
Personal choice is a big factor in getting children to like to read, which is why ALI ensures students have a selection of books they can choose from.
“As kids get a little bit older, if you give them a book and tell them ‘You have to read this’, they’re not going to read it,” said Griffith.
Another main focus for ALI is getting newer books into the hands of students, as schools in rural Appalachia are less likely to have access to these titles.
“There’s so many fabulous books out there,” Griffith said. “So many of the librarians don’t have funds right now because schools are stretched so tight, so they can’t bring in newer titles.”
ALI currently spans six states, and 53 different schools and has over 8,000 students in their program. They have experienced significant growth, as their program started with just 600 students.
Griffith shares that this school year alone, ALI plans to give out 40,000 to 45,000 books.
“We really want to break that cycle of functional illiteracy,” Smith said. “We want to promote healthy lifestyles for children in our area, and by doing that they really need to have the resources to be able to graduate high school.”
Smith is currently the only employee at ALI—other than her, the organization is made up of its five board members.
Despite ALI’s small team, the organization continues to thrive and even has plans to continue to expand its program. Griffith shares that next school year, they’re increasing the number of books given to teachers to eight per quarter, for a new yearly total of 32 books.
Smith adds that soon ALI will be needing a new, bigger space. While the organization started in Bradley’s garage, it has since moved to occupy two rooms of the Bristol Faith in Action building. Smith hopes that in the future ALI will be working out of a much larger space, which would be greatly needed to support their aspirations of expanding to become a nationwide program.
ALI’s intended effects are already being seen by teachers working for schools who are a part of their program.
Shonna McGuire, a third-grade reading and social studies teacher at Richlands Elementary School in Tazewell County, Virginia, has only been working with ALI for this school year but already has seen the impact the program has on her student’s attitudes.
“I just think it’s helped them develop a love for learning and reading,” McGuire said. “I think it’s going to help their [Standards of Learning] scores and they’re going to be more fluent readers.”
McGuire shared that she has been reading aloud one of the books provided by ALI, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, and it has captivated the entire classroom.
“I’ve been reading it to my kids at the end of the day, and we’ve all cried,” McGuire said. “That’s their favorite part of the day.”
McGuire hopes to continue working with ALI because she feels that the students at the school benefit greatly from their program. She shares that Richlands Elementary is a 100% free and reduced lunch school and that many of her students’ families don’t have the money to purchase books for their homes.
Alyson Spirko, a fourth-grade English language arts and science teacher at St. Clair Elementary School in Hawkins County, Tennessee, has worked with ALI for several years and has seen the program create opportunities in her classroom that it did not have prior to working with the organization.
“I’m just grateful for them, really,” Spirko said. “It has helped me build a library to the capacity that I would not have been able to do alone.”
Spirko has worked with ALI long enough to witness and be affected by their growth; she remembers when ALI expanded to reach fifth-grade classrooms, because of how overjoyed the students were at the news.
Spirko highlights how important ALI remains in the face of similar organizations, like the Imagination Library, which stops providing children with books at the age of five. She adds that ALI is different in that students actually get to choose which book to keep, something that gets her classroom excited.
Spirko hopes that ALI will go on to forever change the lives of her students, by helping them to grow their literacy skills by getting them interested in literature.
“If people love to read, then they’re going to do more of it,” Spirko said. “We know more practice increases literacy skills overall.”
Like McGuire, Spirko hopes to continue working with ALI, and cannot imagine teaching without them.
“I just hope they continue to expand and reach more schools and are able to help more classrooms,” Spirko said.
Despite its humble beginnings in Bradley’s garage, ALI has grown to encompass much of the Appalachian region and has no plans to stop. The organization seeks to combat the future of functional illiteracy in Appalachia, a worthy yet daunting mission considering that 65.3% of adults in the Appalachian region read at or below an eighth-grade level, according to a 2020 report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Like most change, it will not happen overnight, but what matters is getting started. For ALI, this means ensuring more children in Appalachia get to come home to a house with books.
For more information on the Appalachian Literacy Initiative, visit their website: readappalachian.org, or follow them on Instagram: @readappalachian.