Robin Ferst Marhaver was attending a party near her home in Madison, Georgia, when one of the guests, an executive at a local manufacturing plant, mentioned his struggles to find skilled workers. Applicants, he said, frequently failed the seventh grade-equivalent reading test.
“That floored me,” Marhaver recalls. “It was eye-opening to see that kids could go to a good school system and still not be prepared to read.”
A lifelong bookworm, she began talking with educators and conducting research on reading. Sixty-one percent of low-income families don’t have children’s books in their homes, she learned, and when children can’t read at grade level by the end of third grade, they’re four times as likely to drop out of high school.
Six months after the party, Marhaver (using her maiden name) founded Ferst Readers (ferstreaders.org), a nonprofit that provides books and other resources to kids and their families. Children who join receive a bookstore-quality, age-specific book each month by mail until they turn 5. Ferst Readers has given 6 million books to almost 300,000 children — the organization will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2020 — and the program operates in seven states, from Texas to Montana.
How big is the impact? When Ferst Readers started in Madison, only 46 percent of local children started school ready to read (which includes skills such as recognizing letters and understanding the connection between written and oral language). Today the number is 99 percent. Beneficiaries include parents like Faye Atwater, whose son Matthew has gone from an average reader to an award-winning reader at school.
“The books help my kids to grow their imagination,” says a grateful Atwater.
Marhaver knows firsthand how books can enrich children’s lives. At age 6, she began experiencing hearing loss and found refuge in reading. “I was pretty isolated,” she says. “At school I really couldn’t participate in things that were going on around me. So I got lost in books and reading and learning.”
Eighty-five percent of a child’s brain is developed during the first three years of life, says Marhaver: “If children don’t receive that vocabulary development, they come to school behind.”
After college, she pursued a career in the financial industry and worked as a stockbroker in Atlanta until her hearing further deteriorated. “I couldn’t tell the difference between 36 a share and 38 a share,” she says with a laugh. (Marhaver today retains about 20 percent of her hearing. When we spoke by phone, her iPhone was connected to her hearing aids via Bluetooth.) She then enjoyed a successful career in fields such as commercial mortgage banking and real estate development.
Her first task as Madison’s book fairy was finding the children who needed them. She wanted to mail books to kids, but to obtain a bulk rate from the U.S. Postal Service, she had to register 200 children for the program. So with the determined spirit of The Little Engine That Could — one of her childhood favorites — she handed registration forms to parents outside Walmart and the local grocery store, and brought forms to church services, community events, and high school football games. “Sometimes I would stuff forms in baby buggies,” she admits.
“She’s just completely passionate about the program,” says Betsy Wagenhauser, who became president of Ferst Readers in 2013. “She is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to early literacy.”
In about three months, Marhaver acquired 200 registrations and simultaneously launched the nonprofit. To cover costs and obtain books, Ferst Readers initially partnered with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a similar program that the country star launched in 1995. She also sought donors: Today, a $36 donation provides one child with a year’s worth of books. As the organization gained momentum, Ferst Readers launched activities ranging from a library story time program to events where local dignitaries, such as the mayor and the fire chief, would read with kids.
“We found an energy in the community,” she says. “There were a thousand kids in Madison and I wanted to give books to every child.”
Instead of Marhaver searching for families, families began contacting the organization, wanting to register their kids. In Georgia, Ferst Readers now has 84 volunteer Community Action Teams, which raise money and register children. The organization has also developed relationships with healthcare providers, including pediatric offices and maternity wards. Eighty-five percent of a child’s brain is developed during the first three years of life, says Marhaver: “If children don’t receive that vocabulary development, they come to school behind.”
Ferst Readers focuses primarily on economically challenged communities, but any family, regardless of income, can sign up their kids. “It’s for every child, because every child needs to come to school ready to learn, and because busy parents often don’t spend time reading with their kids,” Marhaver says. “Most kids might not remember which book they loved the most growing up, but they remember their parents reading with them before they went to bed.”
And children love receiving books in the mail.
“I have always read to my boys, but getting your own book in the mail, well, that’s totally different than the story Mama picks out for you,” says mom Heather Westad, whose two sons are in the program. Westad, a first grade teacher, is impressed not only by the quality of the books — her boys’ favorites include Harry the Dirty Dog and The Grouchy Ladybug — but the diversity of the subjects and characters. “The children my sons see in the books look like the students they go to school with, and I appreciate that,” Westad says. Ferst Readers’ work also has a ripple effect: Many kids eventually donate their books to libraries or the “take a book cart” at school. “You’ll see another child holding those same books, reading them as they walk down the hallway,” she says. “I have used these books in my own classroom. The influence of Ferst Readers reaches farther than the founder probably knows.”
After two decades of work, Marhaver is often reminded of the program’s success. A few years ago, she attended a fundraiser and noticed volunteers who had once been young Ferst Reader participants. At a farmers market in Georgia, she ordered pecans and the cashier recognized her maiden name. “I gave the woman my credit card and she said, ‘Ferst. Are you the book lady?’ When she mailed me the pecans, she sent a note: ‘Thank you so much for your purchase and thank you for your contribution to my son’s love of literature.’”
Marhaver’s ultimate and somewhat audacious goal is to provide one million children with books. “I once had a vision that we’d like to serve every county in Georgia,” she says. “Now I’d like to be all over the country.” But Marhaver knows that big dreams are powered by the sometimes small-yet-significant contributions of donors and volunteers. “Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way,’” says Marhaver. Simply reading to a child, or giving a child a book, is important, she says. To use one of her favorite sayings: “Kids who read succeed.”
Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, an upcoming web series on travel and real-life American heroes.
This article is featured in the January/February 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Courtesy Robin Marhaver
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