San Diego-based literacy organization Words Alive has been helping children and families in need harness the power of reading and “open opportunities for life success” since its founding in 1999. The nonprofit has established a range of programs that form what it terms a “cradle-to-career” model of support addressing the gap in access to education experienced by those who are underserved. And, like most organizations offering in-person programming, Words Alive had to quickly reinvent its practices in light of the health concerns surrounding the current pandemic.

According to executive director Rachael Orose, Words Alive was able to transition to an online approach that enabled her team to maintain its relationships with its existing partners and schools while also developing connections with families, teachers, and students nationwide, and beyond. “Since March we have seen over 38,000 people from across the country, and around the world, come to us for help,” she said. To engage those seeking support, Words Alive created several new programs last spring, including the online platform QuaranTEENS, a resource that encourages teens to write by offering writing and journal prompts, mindfulness activities, and lessons from experts, other kids, and authors, among them Alan Gratz and Matt de la Peña. Links to related videos by a variety of YA authors are also featured on the site. “QuaranTEENS remains our most visited web content,” Orose said. “The top-10 performing prompts average over 1,250 visits each. These are most often visited by teachers and educators, so each of these visits could represent a full classroom—or school—of students.”

Words Alive implemented a daily virtual storytime via its Story Station website. The storytimes typically have interactive components so that kids and families can build essential early literacy skills like reading aloud at home, learning new vocabulary, and sounding out words. Tips for reading aloud at home are provided as well. The majority of readalouds are performed by Words Alive staff and kids (in a “Kids Reading to Kids” section). Several storytimes in Spanish are available, as are links to some author and celebrity readalouds. To date Words Alive has shared more than 100 storytimes in English and Spanish, according to Orose. “The videos have been viewed over 175,000 times,” she said. “While there is no true substitute for exploring a book in the lap of a caring adult, being able to virtually share readalouds with children helps bridge an enormous gap in access to books for families from underserved communities.”

Orose notes that the permissions widely granted to educators and nonprofits by children’s book publishers made the project possible. “Navigating the variance in those permissions was dizzying,” she said, “but enabled us to keep connecting people to the power of reading as schools and libraries were shuttered—and for that we, and thousands of families, are grateful.” Many of the storytimes are archived on the site, but the term for that access depends on the copyright/permissions situation at various publishing houses.

On June 10, Words Alive launched the Novel Ideas virtual gallery space to showcase the artwork, writing, and stories of more than 400 students (most from San Diego County) in three different exhibits. “The Future Is Us: Listening to Our Hearts as a Catalyst for Change” spotlights the voices of kids from three local Title I schools who became activists when they were able to connect material they’ve read with the power of art. The exhibit features a video tour of the students’ activism banners and art techniques and presents a step-by-step tutorial. A second exhibit, “Kids Reading to Kids,” celebrates the work of students who recorded videos for the Kids Reading to Kids section of Story Station, and a third exhibit, “Covid Diaries by QuaranTEENS,” curates some of the writing, video, and images by kids who participated in the QuaranTEEN program.

Making It Work

Orose says that in addition to the eight-person Words Alive staff (not all of them full-time), an army of volunteers is required to keep the organization and its programs afloat. Since March, more than 240 virtual and at-home volunteers have come on board, bringing the active volunteer corps to more than 550 people.

Social media platforms have proven essential in the transformation, according to Orose. “We use a wide range of social media platforms not just as a promotion tool, but as a way to deliver our new virtual programming—with resounding success,” she said. “Our Facebook posts alone have organically delivered our content to nearly 700,000 individuals.”

But Orose is well aware that the nation’s digital divide and other equity issues mean that Words Alive cannot rely on virtual programs alone. “We spent the spring and summer reimagining how our core programs could be delivered both in the classroom and in the living room,” she said. “Connectivity remains a stubborn obstacle for families from underserved communities. And compounding that, youth from underserved communities are living in literal book deserts. We continue to prioritize getting books into their hands to keep, and the inclusion of authors and stories that reflect their identities.”

As a result, Words Alive created a series of kits consisting of books, activities, parent guides, videos, and text message support if no internet is available, “designed to support learning for both child and parent alike.” Nearly 1,000 kits have already been distributed and Orose anticipates that thousands more will be given out in the coming months. Across its new programs this year, Words Alive has given away more than 10,000 new and gently used children’s books donated by the community.

Taking yet another tack to broaden Words Alive’s reach during the pandemic, Orose pointed out, “We have modified our programs to train community agencies, often those thrust into educational roles, on how to support a love of literacy and reading for the students in their care. During the summer we trained seven San Diego agencies in effective reading engagement strategies and how to layer reading and stories into their daily work.” She expects more of these trainings to take place.

Though Words Alive is rich in volunteers, funding the group’s work is always front of mind for Orose and her team. “While we are seeing an outpouring of passion, the turbulent economy is seemingly leading to a hesitation around charitable donations,” Orose said. “Cash donations are needed—right now—to support literacy organizations, like ours, so we can be sure children and families have the basic skills they need to survive this pandemic.” To that end, she mentions that this year’s Words Alive fall fundraiser is going virtual (beginning October 1), and includes an on-demand celebration of reading, featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ayad Akhtar and scholar Dr. Seth Lerer as well as a silent auction where participants can bid on an author to virtually visit their book club or child’s classroom. Among the nearly 45 authors taking part are Jack Gantos, Shilpi Somaya Gowda, Rafael López, Lisa See, and Brian Selznick.

Orose maintains that despite the challenges involved, her organization’s efforts are more critical than ever. “Unless someone intervenes, children who struggle to read—or understand what they read—become adults who struggle to support themselves and their families,” she said. “The lack of a strong scholastic foundation contributes—individually and as a community—to heightened poverty, health issues, the inability to advocate for oneself and participate civically, and to understand the rapidly changing world. We cannot afford this in our communities today, or ever.”

And offering a more personal view, Orose said that in today’s constant state of disruption, reading is a coping mechanism in her own family. “I find immense comfort and escape in stories. Every night my daughter and I read books together, and I look forward to that moment all day,” she said. “Just the notion that not every family has the ability or resources to have these moments of escape is core to my motivation to show up for the cause every single day.”