Million Book Effort: What now?

By Jessica Connor

Nearly two months after the culmination of the conference’s Million Book Effort, many South Carolina United Methodists have decided not to shelf their passion for children’s literacy.

Now, they are moving beyond a book drive to get to the heart of the issue: combatting poverty and illiteracy through hands-on relationship.

“Instead of one million books, what would it look like to have one million volunteer hours reading to children?” said the Rev. Kathy James, director of Connectional Ministries. “What would it look like for United Methodists in significant numbers to go into schools and support, in ways already working, to help these families with some real relationships, support and care?”

The Cabinet has identified a short-term goal to carry on the MBE by building on what worked well in local districts. Many churches and districts created or strengthened partnerships with schools, nonprofits, afterschool tutoring centers and other literacy groups, not only donating books to these places but also getting involved as volunteers.

“The MillionBook Effort is not about the numbers,even though that means a great deal,” said Bishop Jonathan Holston. “It’s about the effort of all our churches, large and small, wherever they may be, who had an opportunity to make a difference, and I was just energized by the numbers of persons who participated. Our next step is taking that MillionBook Effort and turning it into a million hours of service in our communities and our schools.”

James said the purpose of the book drive was to raise awareness about the issues surrounding poverty, literacy and public education, and the great need for people of faith to be supporting at-risk children and families in our communities.

“It was always clear to the MBE Design Team that this (book drive) was a beginning, that resources like books are needed, but of equal or greater need are relationships and supportive networks for children and families living in poverty,” she said.

Matt Brodie, director of communications, said those sorts of supportive networks are critical for children struggling with literacy issues.

“Kids need mentors and role models, and the books provided by the Million Book Effort were a first step in creating the relationships that allow the church to fulfill those roles,” Brodie said. “Personally, I’d like to see each church connect with a school or youth program to provide mentors and tutors to children whose only chance to break the cycle of poverty is to receive a quality education.”

The conference’s Children in Poverty Task Force authorized the hire of a summer intern, who is finalizing a comprehensive county-by-county index of existing reading groups and similar organizations across South Carolina. By the end of the summer, the task force plans to get the index into the hands of districts. The index shows not only which groups the local churches can get involved with that are already actively working hands-on to help children read, but also which areas of the state do not seem to have enough literacy groups, so perhaps the churches can mobilize to create one.

The Rev. Ricky Howell, who chaired the MBE design team, said it’s important to remember the MBE is about far more than books.

“Even during the beginning stages of planning the Million Book Effort, the Design Team was aware that the act of collecting books—while certainly impactful—would not by itself solve the interrelated problems of illiteracy and poverty,” Howell said. ”We hoped that drawing attention to the needs of children within our state would not only result in a large number of books to distribute, but would also foster a lasting desire among our congregations and communities to make a real difference in the lives of those children on a regular basis.”

In addition to hands-on relationship with literacy groups and the children themselves, the UMC is embracing other big-picture ways to combat illiteracy, which essentially involve resourcing church leaders who can implement or partner with significant programs in their congregations and communities.

LARCUM, an ecumenical relationship among Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic and United Methodist bishops and their churches in South Carolina, has issued their official support for public education in South Carolina, pledging prayer, commitment, resources and more to lift up schools and students (see related article, page x). The annual LARCUM Bishop’s Dialogue Oct. 13 will address “The Church Support of Public Education: Strategies that Matter.”

Also, S.C. UMC Bishop Jonathan Holston and Lutheran Bishop Herman Yoos have met with representatives at Columbia College and Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary about doing continuing education events for clergy around issues of mutual concern—especially public education. The first, “Being the Church in our Changing World: Impacting Education in our Communities,” will be Nov. 3.

James said the overall goal with these is to provide resources to churches and training to clergy about the many ways they can make a difference with children.

“Clearly there are significant issues facing public education in the state, clearly there is an underlying link between poverty and illiteracy … and the church is being invited to look around the community, see the need and respond through the love of Christ,” James said.

Howell said that as the conference celebrates the success of the Million Book Effort so far, it’s important to also consider how we might build on that success.

“Putting a book into the hands of a child is a great start, but investing the time and energy to ensure that a child learns how to read that book can have a lasting, significant impact that could change the course of that child’s life,” he said.

South Carolina United Methodists collected more than 300,000 brand-new preschool and elementary books, which were donated to children in need across the state through the Million Book Effort. Volunteers then sorted books into age-appropriate level, put stickers inside the books that identified them as being from the UMC, and boxed and distributed the books to various literacy organizations. The collection began in the spring and largely ended June 3 with a final book-processing event during Annual Conference at the Florence Civic Center.

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