Bush funds breathe new life into Family Literacy effort

HUDSON — Last December the future looked bleak to Sophie Becker, director of the non-profit Hudson Family Literacy Program (HFLP), and Carol Gans, then the principal of John L. Edwards Elementary School. Ms. Gans started the program under the name of Even Start in 1999, but  funding was about to run out.

This week the situation looks much brighter. Because the women refused to give up on the successful project, friends of the program stepped forward to offer financial help and this week Tina Sharpe, director of Columbia Opportunities, Inc., revealed that the program will receive a $65,000 grant from the Barbara Bush Foundation Award.

The application for the funds was submitted last fall, one of some 400 applicants seeking the funds. On Tuesday, May 3, the organization learned it is 9 recipients and the only program in the Northeast. HFLP received the highest level of grant funding that the foundation offers. The Barbara Bush Foundation awards $600,000 annually in awards to support family literacy nationwide.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush, a longtime advocate for the cause of literacy, said in a press release May 1, “I truly believe that being able to read, write and comprehend is the key to a successful and happy life. And a literate society is important to keeping our country strong and safe. Our goal, and what these grants provide for, is to send children reading-ready to their first day of school, and to equip parents with the literacy tools they need for success. There is no greater opportunity for quality time between parent and child than reading together.”

“A parent is a child’s first teacher,” said Ms. Sharpe in explanation of why the program focuses on parents as well as children. “Language development is impacted by economic factors.”

HFLP helps even the playing field for children and parents by improving their English language skills. It works with children beginning between the ages two to four years, before they are ready to enter school, and follows them through high school. The tutors work with parents separately and with their children in classes and other group activities, like dinners and field trips, and at home. They provide counseling to parents and help with educational and vocational programs, citizenship and immigration issues, and connections to other community assistance programs like Wheels to Work.

“A poor family may not have books and magazines in the home. We collect books and give them to these families to help them build their own libraries at home,” said Ms. Becker.

HFLP serves 30 non-English speaking families with young children in Hudson, a total of over 100 clients. Many families are recent immigrants from non-English speaking countries. Bengali families make up the majority of clients in the program, which also serves the Latino and Haitian families.

HFLP is run by a partnership of the community activism agency, Columbia Opportunities and the Hudson City School District. The partnership, which was a requirement at the outset, is a key ingredient and source of strength, say Ms. Becker and Ms. Sharpe, who spoke with the Columbia Paper May 3 at the program’s office on the first floor of John L. Edwards Elementary School.

That morning an early childhood class run by the program that meets three times a week during the school year was in progress next door. The class does everything a normal prekindergarten class does: art, dance, music, reading, story-telling, with a special focus on language development.

While the goals are similar to those of Head Start, HFLP differs from the Head Start in its focus on individuals with limited English speaking ability and its involvement with parents as well as children. Participating families must have incomes of no more than 125% above poverty, said Ms. Sharpe. Some students transfer from HFLP into Head Start.

The program started out with federal Even Start funding, but that source of support ended after 2007, when the Bush administration cut funding for Even Start. At that time, the name of the program was changed to the Hudson Family Literacy Program. More recently the program survived with the help of federal stimulus money, block grant funding for community action agencies and private donations. This year, despite calls in Congress for cuts to agencies like Columbia Opportunities, Ms. Sharpe says there was overwhelming support to maintain current community service block grant funding. “The grants were cut by 2%, and we’re still here,” she said.

After a story on the program’s plight appeared last December in The Columbia Paper, an anonymous donor gave $8,500 to the program and Marlene Brody, co-owner of Gallagher Studs, the horse farm in Ghent and the Four Seasons and Gallagher’s restaurants in New York City also helped keep the project going. Ms. Brody, who also provided a two-year matching grant administered by the Berkshire Taconic Foundation in 2007, is now looking forward to a trip to Washington, D.C., in September to accept the Barbara Bush Award on behalf of HFLP.

Ms. Sharpe described the Bush award as “significant part” of the financing for the project, but she said that because the program’s annual budget runs between $225,000 and $250,000 a year, the directors plan to continue to seek funding from other sources and are always looking for volunteers.

“It’s going to be a challenge the next couple of years,” said Ms. Becker.

“It’s a challenge comparable to the challenges low income families face every day,” said Ms. Sharpe. Volunteers are an important component of the program. Students from Hudson High School work with children as part of their school’s community service requirement. Others visit families at home to provide parents with an opportunity for more conversational practice, or participate by performing or providing other entertainment at the monthly dinners the program hosts at the school.

Tax deductible donations for HFLP may be made either to Columbia Opportunities or to Hudson City School district Common Endowment Fund, Inc. by mailing them to to Rick Bianchi, c/o Shallo, Galluscio, Bianchi and Fucito, CPAs, 21 north 7th Street, Hudson, with the purpose of the donation stated on the check.

To volunteer at HFLP, call Sophie Becker at 518 828-4611 or Tina Sharpe at 518 828-4360, ext. 4322. 

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