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There’s a monthly delivery that causes a bit of a kerfuffle at my house. We find it in our mailbox, and it doesn’t look like much from the outside — just a slim children’s book wrapped in plastic with a little activity sheet enclosed.

Although these books are geared toward my young son, my daughter enjoys them, too, and the two of them frequently divide up the accompanying newsletter, which has coloring and drawing activities they like. They always clamor to look through the book, and since my daughter learned to read, I have found them enjoying it together as she relates the story out loud to her brother. The volumes are courtesy of the Ferst Readers program.

The beauty of this service has really shone for me during the pandemic. The Calhoun-Gordon County Library, which we usually frequent, has been closed for many months now, but our Ferst books have arrived like clockwork. That’s thanks in part to Elizabeth Howard, the CGCL assistant branch manager who made the suggestion that we sign up for Ferst books shortly after my son’s birth several years ago.

Debbie Ross, a Ferst regional program coordinator, agrees that Ferst’s mail-based system has worked well in serving the public at a time when other types of access to books was extremely limited.

“Even during the pandemic, because everything we do is through the mail, nothing stopped. Nothing changed. People worked from home,” she says.

The Madison, Georgia-based nonprofit began in 1999 in Robin Ferst’s home. Ferst knew about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program in Tennessee. Ross says Ferst’s thinking veered toward her own state: “‘But what about all those kids in Georgia?’”

The organization now serves, eight states, and there are more than 100 programs in Georgia.

“It has exploded in the last year,” Ross says. “It’s crazy.”

To receive books, children simply need to be under the age of 5 and live in a participating community. Parents can enroll them via the organization’s website, ferstreaders.org. Civic organizations like Rotary and Kiwanis clubs can sponsor a set group of kids, and many libraries, like ours, are places where parents can sign their children up. Participation can be great for those who can’t afford to buy books or for families who just love the magic of receiving literature in the mail.

“We focus on low-income families, but it’s open to anyone,” Ross explains.

The organization’s nine employees contribute to the shipment of thousands of books each month. There are 45,373 set to go out in January alone, Ross says.

The reading choices themselves are the result of a careful selection process that begins with a committee that chooses offerings from publishers interested in sending books.

“Every book from birth to the fifth birthday builds,” Ross explains.

And each mailing comes with a customized newsletter that matches the book it accompanies. If a community submits events, they appear on the front of the newsletter, and if there are no events for that area, children will see a generic design that still includes activities on the inner pages.

If you are interested in sponsoring a group of children through Ferst, I encourage you to visit the website at ferstreaders.org. Although the cutoff for deductible donations for 2020 will have passed by the time you see this column, donating to Ferst is still a great way to start off the new year. And sponsorship is a worthy project to put on your civic organization’s calendar. Ferst Readers is a four-star-rated 501C3, and as Ross points out, “every penny is tax deductible.”

And if you have children, a 12-page book and newsletter may sound like a small thing, but I assure you you’ll begin to see it as a gift when you witness your kids poring over them. We’ve been introduced to the Stanley series, a set of picture books from Peachtree Publishers whose central character, Stanley the hamster (I think), experiences conflict and resolution in various settings — a grocery store, a train, a garage. My son loves the bright colors, and my daughter can read the simple stories. The author, William Bee, is English, so we get to experience new verbiage (candy in the grocery store is labeled “sweeties”), which is always fun.

So, if you don’t already receive books from the Ferst Foundation, I encourage you to sign your child up. Happy reading!

Elizabeth Crumbly is a newspaper veteran and freelance writer. She lives in rural Northwest Georgia where she teaches riding lessons, writes and raises her family. She is a former editor of The Catoosa County News. You can correspond with her at www.collective-ink.com.

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