Foundation for Family Literacy: A First Lady’s Passion
Written By: Claire Wilson
Known as “everybody’s grandmother,” former First Lady Barbara Bush was a strong, honest, servant-hearted woman who inspired people to help others and stay true to their beliefs. She dedicated much of her life to helping people, specifically as a steadfast advocate for literacy. Though Barbara passed away on April 17, 2018, her passion lives on.
In 1989, Barbara launched the Foundation for Family Literacy to “advocate for and establish literacy as a value in every home,” according to the Foundation’s website. Twenty-nine years later, they have raised over $110 million in support of family literacy programs across the United States. She stepped aside from the Foundation in 2012, but it continues to honor her vision and instill in new generations her passion for helping children and adults gain the key to success: the ability to read and write.
Celebration of Reading
One of the Foundation’s signature fundraisers is the Celebration of Reading held in several locations across the country. The celebration in Dallas/Fort Worth will take place on November 6, 2018, at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.
Fleming Huckin, co-chair of the underwriting (raising funds designated for specific aspects of a nonprofit organization) for the event, said she looks forward to honoring Barbara’s legacy at this year’s celebration. “I’m excited because I feel even more connected this year than I have in the past, kind of working as a volunteer in terms of my time but also spreading her message as it relates to family literacy,” Huckin said. “I think this is going to be an extra special year to pay tribute to her life and this cause which she so steadfastly pursued for the last 30 years.”
The program will include authors Michael Connelly, Philipp Meyer, and Ellie LeBlond Sosa, as well as members of the Bush family. Former First Lady Laura Bush will serve as the honorary chair and Brill Garrett will serve as the chair. This year, the celebration provides a unique opportunity to honor Barbara and her life of service. Huckin said that one of the writers they are excited for is Ellie LeBlond Sosa, co-author of George and Barbara Bush: A Great American Love Story, who will talk about her grandparents’ legacy of love.
The funds raised by this event in 2017 allowed the Foundation to support more than 140 family literacy programs across the United States, as well as new efforts to provide parents and children with access to educational opportunities. The Foundation currently supports 160 family literacy programs in twelve states. With 36 million illiterate adults in the U.S., the continuance of these programs is essential to teaching parents and children the basic skills necessary to improve their lives.
The Foundation welcomes support from organizations and individuals to keep their programs running and Barbara’s mission alive. According to the Foundation’s website, “illiteracy is America’s biggest challenge,” but it cannot be fought alone. “There’s multiple ways to get involved – obviously giving: giving time, and of course money,” Huckin said. “I think for sure, attending and supporting the 17th Annual Celebration of Reading would be a great start as we continue to share the message and focus on fulfilling the mission of the Foundation to advocate for and establish literacy as a value in every home in Texas.”
Throughout her life, in and out of the White House, Barbara focused on helping others. Through it all, she realized that the best way to help people is to give them the ability to help themselves: literacy. Quoted on the Foundation’s website, Barbara said, “The American Dream is about equal opportunity for everyone who works hard. If we don’t give everyone the ability to simply read and write, then we aren’t giving everyone an equal chance to succeed.”
Huckin said that Barbara’s passion inspired her to stay true to herself. “I think that Barbara being a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and a friend, and also staying true to herself and her passions, one of which being family literacy, with this steadfast focus, is something that’s really inspiring,” Huckin said. “With her role in such a celebrated political family, she didn’t alter who was she was and what she believed.”
Barbara initiated and participated in a variety of programs and efforts to raise funds and awareness for literacy. She wrote two children’s books, started a national radio program that encouraged parents to read aloud to their children, launched the Foundation, and supported many programs that sought to improve literacy and quality of life. In Barbara Bush: A Memoir, she shared a letter she wrote during her first year in the White House. In that letter she said, “Teaching that all people are equal is a priority for me. Feeding the hungry and housing the poor is a priority for me. Keeping kids in school is a priority for me, and I could go on and on.”
A Cause for All Generations
For the last seventeen years, the Foundation has worked to increase awareness of the literacy gap in America while decreasing the gap itself. Their programs include pairing elementary school students with high school reading mentors at least twice a week (Teen Trendsetters™), opportunities for parents to earn high school diplomas or improve their English, while learning with their preschool-age children. According to the Foundation’s website, “90 percent of preschool children who enter our programs at the lowest literacy levels end the school year on par with their peers and ready to enter kindergarten.”
Barbara’s mantle did not fall to just one person. Rather, she left it to her Foundation and each new generation to help others attain a better life through literacy. “I think that reading and writing are empowering,” Huckin said. “I think that setting people up for success by helping them learn to read and write, just getting back to the basics, is empowering them as individuals and empowering them as members of society going forward.”
Barbara’s work and success through the Foundation remain a driving force for those passionate about improving literacy, including Huckin. Attending for the fourth year, she began her connection with the Foundation as a volunteer at the 2015 Celebration of Reading in Dallas/Fort Worth. A lifelong reader, she said she loved the event so much and felt so strongly about the issue, she continues to advocate for literacy from a more involved position.
This year, the organization asked her mother, Lisa Longino, to lead the underwriting for the Celebration of Reading. “She made the connection that this was the event I had enjoyed and told her so much about in the last few years and I decided that I’d love to join her in this effort,” Huckin said. Together, they co-chair the underwriting as a “fundraising powerhouse” duo.
Though Huckin and Barbara come from very different generations, their passion for literacy shows that this cause will continue to be relevant as long as there are people who lack the skills to create better lives for themselves. “I would love to continue to get more and more of my friends and young adults involved in this cause because we’re the next generation of leaders and this is a cause that could really be close to a lot of people’s hearts, especially when they’re aware of the [literacy] gap in society,” Huckin said.
Huckin agreed that literacy is the key to growth and development, individually and overall in society. “I think that reading and writing are stepping stones to success,” Huckin said. She referenced the fact that students who are not proficient readers by third grade are four times more likely to not finish high school, and said that literacy increases their chances of graduating high school, using their imagination, and daring to dream.
The Foundation will continue to combat this educational gap by creating and funding different programs for low-income parents and young children. “If we can increase the literacy among families, adults and children alike, we can ultimately foster more financially stable households, greater opportunities for children and parents, and healthier lifestyles as a whole, which ultimately is going to benefit society,” Huckin said.
To purchase tickets to the Celebration of Reading or learn how you can become involved, visit www.barbarabush.org.