Nonprofit Mississippi News CLEVELAND — Corrine Hegwood, a speech pathologist has been asking children for years what they enjoy reading about. It’s something she has been asking more frequently since co-founding Reading at the Park, along with her husband and other members of the community. They hosted their sixth event in Cleveland at Sterling-Anderson Park, where they gave away pizza, diapers and books to all the families who attended. Corrine Hegwood, who lived in Chattanooga for a while, noticed that the children she worked with were more interested in books than toys when she was a child. Reading at the Park was born out of her desire to give books to her students and friends and the need she saw for them in Mississippi. 32% of Mississippi’s kindergarten-ready children were ready to go when they began school. Research by the Department of Education shows that children who are kindergarten ready at the start of school will be proficient readers by the third grade. Research also shows that children from lower income families are less likely than others to have access books appropriate for their age or to have a parent read to them. This has been proven to improve school performance. Corrine Hegwood stated, “What I’m finding” is that children who struggle reading are those sitting in the principal’s office. They are communicating differently. Margaret Katembe, a Delta State librarian, was responsible for the check-in tables, which registered children and explained the event to parents. Through their friendship, Katembe met the Hegwoods and discovered a common passion for literacy. This passion was nurtured into the Reading at the Park program. Katembe stated that although turnout can vary depending on the size of the community visited, she is pleased overall with the number and quality of children who have attended each event. Collaborations with other groups are also a great way to attract visitors, she said. Katembe stated, “Today, I can see diapers are a big hit and when they come to get the diapers they take with them books.” After children have been registered, volunteers accompany them to the appropriate book table and help them choose books. They then take their blankets to read with them. Corrine Hegwood stressed that this is about helping children find books that interest them and encourage them to read on their own. They registered more than 60 children at the event and had 30 volunteers. They have given away approximately 1,500 books since they began. They have not been able to reach older children so far. However, they are now partnering with the Diaper Bank of the Delta. Corrine Hegwood stated, “Zero five to five, that is the time, that window, that’s the most crucial time for brain development.” “What they get in those five years is an indication of what kind reader they will be,” Les Hegwood, a priest at Calvary Episcopal Church, Cleveland, said. He saw the need to provide more opportunities for direct service in the church. He stated that the Reading at the Park program has received enthusiastic support from the congregation, in both funding and volunteers. Barksdale Reading Institute also funded the program. Les Hegwood said that the team has worked hard to create a book list that is representative for the Delta community that they serve. Les Hegwood stated that the list includes a lot books with African American characters. These books are rare unfortunately in libraries and schools. Books that would “help foster a feeling that ‘I am’ and should be the hero of these stories, myths, and are being made in my imagination,” they wanted. Katembe and the Hegwoods stressed the importance of meeting parents and children at their homes, so they decided to concentrate on local parks. They hope to get a donated shipping truck that they can turn into a “bookmobile” and drive the books around different communities. Tracy Jones explained that she was there with her children to check out the park as she lives right across the street. Her second-grade son enjoys reading about sports. With her nearly two-year old daughter, she reads a lot of picture books. She said that diapers are especially useful because they can be expensive. Jones stated that she bought ‘Snuggle Puppy,’ a book about the zoo and ‘Lola Goes to the Library. “I have to get the tough ones or she will tear them up.” Kierre Rimer, another co-founder and founder of Reading at the Park was introduced to the Hegwoods by his work with FLY Zone, a youth empowerment organization in the area that works with middle and high schools students since 2013. Rimmer stated that he has seen many people who he knew from his events as well as many new faces. Rimmer stated, “Once they have seen me, they become more relaxed when they attend events like this.” “Les and his spouse are still young, so you could say that I’m the gel, or the liaison.” Corrine Shegwood stated that it is often not lack of interest but lack of access that stops children from becoming better readers. She recalls a recent visit she made to Mound Bayou. There, she knocked on doors and met a sixth grader. “I asked her what she wanted to read and she replied, ‘Well, I want to read everything.'” Editor’s Note: Mississippi Today’s board includes Jim Barksdale (the founder of Barksdale Reading Institute).