By Cheryl Moore
Be Inkandescent magazine
Reading aloud to children is one of the most important building blocks of literacy. Research shows that at-risk children have heard 32 million fewer words than middle-income children by the time they enter kindergarten. For the past 25 years, The Reading Connection (TRC) has been working to close that gap.
“Reading aloud to children is the focus of The Reading Connection. We believe that positive experiences with books can unlock a lifelong love of reading and that reading empowers kids to reach their potential,” says TRC Executive Director Courtney Kissell.
In its 25th year, TRC is proud to have expanded beyond its Arlington, VA, headquarters to serve children and families throughout the Washington, DC, metro area. The organization was a finalist in the 2014 Washington Post Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management and has been named “one of the best small charities in the Washington, DC, region” by the Catalogue for Philanthropy.
Scroll down for our Q&A with Kissell to learn more about how TRC has improved the lives of thousands of children by instilling in them the love of books and giving them the foundation to become successful readers.
BeInkandescent: Tell us about The Reading Connection. What is your mission?
Courtney Kissell: Our mission at TRC is to create environments that encourage reading for at-risk kids and families. We believe that serving our community begins with the children. Reading can make all the difference in a child’s life. We accomplish this mission with:
- Volunteers who read aloud to children at shelters and community centers,
- Donations that provide children with free, new books to keep,
- Workshops that help parents encourage reading and literacy development, and
- Training for family support workers who promote the importance of reading.
Be Inkandescent: When and why did you get involved with TRC? Tell us a little about your background.
Courtney Kissell: I’ve been the TRC executive director for more than eight years. One of my first post-college jobs was at a political consulting firm. I was making a very good salary, but I found myself concerned about and moved by a homeless man I often saw outside my Georgetown office. I eventually decided I needed to spend my time making a difference for people like that man. And now, after having worked in the field of children’s advocacy for many years, when I see my 13-month-old daughter’s delight in books, I know TRC is absolutely the right place for me.
Be Inkandescent: How has TRC changed over the years?
Courtney Kissell: We have had four longstanding programs—the Read-Aloud Program, the Book Club, Reading Families Workshops, and Literacy Advocates Trainings. They all developed incrementally over the years from needs we saw as we worked with our families and partner agencies.
Several years ago, we had an “aha!” moment when research began to surface documenting how much at-risk children lose in reading skills each summer. Because they are not in school practicing those skills, and their home environments do not provide enrichment, they actually lose reading skills over the summer, while their more affluent classmates continue to gain reading skills through enrichment provided by their families.
Because we already had regular reading programs for children in place year-round (with access to reading supplies, program support, books, staff support, and funding), we were able to create a new program to address “summer slide.” We called the program “We Are Readers.” We now have data showing that the kids participating in this vibrant program read many more minutes per day during the summer and are enthused about reading and books.
Be Inkandescent: Who is the TRC target audience?
Courtney Kissell: We work with at-risk families in shelters and apartment complexes and with at-risk families recommended to us by local home-visiting social service agencies.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about some of the accomplishments of TRC that you are most proud of.
Courtney Kissell: 2014 is an important year for TRC—it is our 25th anniversary. We are proud that we have marshaled the planning, funding, staff, and programs to last! This year, we served 1,350 kids and gave them nearly 12,000 books. Also in this calendar year, we were a finalist in the Washington Post Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management.
Be Inkandescent: Can you give an example of one or two people you have helped?
Courtney Kissell: Although we can’t easily track children because of the transitory nature of shelter living and confidentiality concerns, we were able to find several families recently to feature in our 25th anniversary Annual Report. One of those families tells about their long-time connection to TRC in this video, A TRC Family.
Be Inkandescent: What are your goals for TRC for 2014-15?
Courtney Kissell: We know that there is a 32-million word gap between at-risk kids entering kindergarten and middle-income kids. And we know that there are 140,000 kids in metro DC whose families live in poverty. Clearly, there is a huge need for TRC’s services. In order to address this need, TRC’s board and staff will have a clearly defined growth strategy for the next three years that will enable us to reach more at-risk kids.
Be Inkandescent: What is the budget for TRC, and how do you raise funds?
Courtney Kissell: Our budget is $600,000, which we meet with a diverse portfolio of funding opportunities. These include special events (our signature fundraiser, Of Wine & Words, raised over $100,000 in 2014), individual giving, and foundation support.
Be Inkandescent: If our readers could learn just one thing about TRC, what would you want them to know?
Courtney Kissell: We’d like your readers to know this: “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children” (from “Becoming a Nation of Readers,” 1985). Reading aloud to children is the focus of The Reading Connection. We believe that positive experiences with books can unlock a lifelong love of reading and that reading empowers kids to reach their potential.
About Courtney Kissell
Kissell has served as executive director of The Reading Connection (TRC) since June 2006. She provides vision and leadership in developing organizational, financial, and strategic plans with the staff and board of directors while managing a budget of $600,000, a staff of five, and a board of 15. A graduate of Frostburg State University, she has a dual degree in political science and criminal justice. Kissell lives in Alexandria, VA, with her husband and 13-month-old daughter. She is a graduate of Leadership Arlington (Class of 2008), a member of the Alexandria Childhood Obesity Action Network, and the chair of Project Play, a task force promoting play in the City of Alexandria.
Contact Courtney Kissell at firstname.lastname@example.org.