CASTLE ROCK — Jennifer Engkraf still remembers her excitement when a national nonprofit donated books to the Castle Rock Elementary School she attended in the 1990s.
Today, Engkraf is the owner of a Castle Rock bookstore and spearheading local efforts to resurrect the book donations that sparked her love for reading roughly three decades ago. Now, more children will receive free books to increase literacy and create lifelong readers, the way a defunded federal program did for Engkraf.
“Ever since I could read, it’s like this magic secret opened to me,” she said. “I want to give kids access to that.”
Castle Rock program
For roughly 42 years, Cowlitz County students received free books through a national nonprofit called Reading Is Fundamental, until local efforts dissolved in 2016.
Engkraf was prompted to restart book giveaways at the city’s elementary school when a private donor, who previously lived in Castle Rock, contributed seed money about a year ago, she said.
People are also reading…
The plan is to supply Castle Rock third-graders with one book of their choosing twice a year. The Vaults Books & Brews owner said purchasing books for the roughly 100 students costs about $1,000 per session.
The first book giveaway Engkraf hosted was in November. She plans to hold another giveaway in May and is looking to form a 501©(3) this summer to collect donations.
Engkraf said she hand picks about a dozen titles and arranges them in a Castle Rock Elementary School classroom, similar to her experience with Reading Is Fundamental. Students choose a book, have the inside cover stamped and write their names underneath.
She still has copies of her grade-school book selections, Engkraf said, with her printed or cursive signatures lining inside covers. Signing her name de ella made Engkraf realize the book de ella was her de ella s de ella — an important step to make reading an everyday activity.
“Some kids go home and don’t see books and think reading is just for school,” Engkraf said. “I want to normalize reading.”
Reading Is Fundamental Vice President of Operations Cammie Backus said when students have books at home, their reading skills enhance. She noted a literacy journal called “Reading Psychology” that published a study in 2010 showing low-income students who were given books over three years earned higher reading proficiency scores than low-income students who did not receive books.
“Book ownership directly impacts a child’s potential to become a proficient reader which is why providing under-resourced communities with free books is so important,” Backus said.
Castle Rock is home to under-resourced students, who performed lower on a recent English standard exam than students with more resources. The state reports about 29% of low-income Castle Rock Elementary School students met grade-level standards on the language arts and literacy exam this school year, while 44% of non-low-income students met requirements.
local literacy programs
For roughly 35 years, Reading Is Fundamental offered federal matching grants to organizations throughout the country that used funds to purchase up to five books a year for participating students.
Backus said Reading Is Fundamental’s federal government contract to supply books was cut in 2012. A Daily News report says Cowlitz County efforts dissolved in 2016.
In the 2010-11 school year alone, Backus reports Cowlitz County Reading Is Fundamental awarded 26,000 books to 6,400 children using more than $18,000 in federal grants.
Since local Reading is Fundamental efforts ended, another nonprofit reading has gained popularity for younger local children.
The United Way of Cowlitz and Wahkiakum Counties manages local giveaways through Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a nonprofit that mails children up to 5 years old one new book a month. The county’s four Rotary Clubs — Kelso, Woodland, Longview Noon Edition and Longview Early Edition — have supported the program.
The Longview Noon Rotary Club recently reported 119,567 books have been distributed in Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties since the program’s local 2018 inception.
The Washington State Legislature also passed a bill this spring to form a state office for the country singer’s nonprofit to serve children throughout Washington. Lawmakers earmarked $26,000 in the state’s supplemental operating budget for the program in 2023.
Engkraf, who studied early childhood education in college, is focusing on third-grade students because its a critical age for literacy. Engkraf said it takes longer for students to catch up on reading after third grade.
She also wants kids to enjoy reading as much as she does. Engkraf still recalls one of her reading is fundamental selections about a girl who learned to ride a bike, which she “read so many times.” Other books, like The Baby-Sitters Club series, helped her cope with losing her mother at a young age, which also happened to a character.
“I want kids to pick a book they like,” Engkraf said. “Whether it’s above or below their reading level, just enjoy. That’s forever.”