With camps closed, local nonprofits pivot to fight the summer reading slump

It may be back to business in Memphis but many organizations are still taking precautions.

The pandemic is disproportionately affecting racial minorities and other vulnerable populations. Schools, nonprofits, and businesses are working to protect communities even as safer-at-home orders ease.

Agape Child & Family Services and Arise2Read both revamped their plans to provide low- and no-contact literacy services.

“We have to invest in our children early. We can’t wait,” said Karen Vogelsang, executive director of Arise2Read.

Normally her team would have just finished their biggest end-of-year school event, the Camp Read S’More Celebration. There, volunteers distribute thousands of book-filled backpacks to each second grader across Arise2Read's 30 partner schools. They also read a book one-on-one to each student over s’mores.

Volunteers labeled 30,000 books and had them ready to fill the bags before Covid-19 shut down schools and the warehouse where they were stored.

“Once the Safer At Home order was lifted we just thought about how can we do this safely and get books into the hands of children,” Vogelsang said.

Her team finally gained access into the storage warehouse in May. Within a week, a small number of volunteers assembled around 4,000 backpacks.

Instead of hosting one large event, they delivered the bags to each partner school for drive-by pickup and delivery for families with transportation limitations.

Team members and volunteers with Arise2Read distribute summer learning kits to kids who will have to battle the summer reading slide primarily from home this summer. (Submitted)

Fighting Summer Slide 

Currently less than 30% of Memphis-area students are reading at grade-level by third grade. In-class instruction is critical to keep from slipping further behind the curve. 

Students have already missed a quarter of the 2019-20 school year due to COVID-19 and Shelby County Schools could face a hybrid model of distance learning and in-person classes when learners return in the fall.

Summer camps and summer school are also cancelled or moving online and schools can't provide their normal summer remediation or enrichment for students who are struggling.

Young learners in Pre-K through third grade may also struggle to get the most out of online learning and are especially at risk of losing academic gains over the summer.

According to recent studies, a child’s early years are some of the most critical to long term academic success.

Vogelsang said quick action can help to address the summer slide, especially for families who may have limited access to books.

“Over the summer, we’ve got to do whatever we can to prevent that slide. We have to give them access to the resources that they need so they can be successful as they enter the next grade,” Vogelsang said.


Arise2Read distributed an additional 1300 books through a partnership with Give901, Porterleath’s Books from Birth, and two local businesses, Burke’s Books and Art Center.

Give901 is a giving platform created by City Leadership and Choose901. Kate
Lareau is the development director for City Leadership.

“Everything we’ve done in the last month is a complete pivot,” Lareau said. “The summer learning kits project is a direct result of COVID-19.”

In less than three weeks, Give901 raised over $15,000 to assemble summer learning kits with age-appropriate books, printed activity packs, and active learning toys. Most of their donations were around $25 or the average cost of a kit.

Lareau said the summer learning kits were always something they wanted to do but the pandemic pushed them to act quickly.

“We know that physically getting your hands on books is harder right now,” Lareau said. “We just knew that if we could get more books in the hands then young readers would be able to absorb more.”


Agape’s model for lifting children from poverty relies on regular home visits.

With social distancing requirements, these visits have gone virtual to protect their families in Frayser.

“We’ve really prided ourselves that we serve where the people are. That’s a great model until you can’t go anywhere,” said Agape’s Lori Humber.

Agape matches families with connectors who work with them in their apartments and at their kids' schools. They provide wraparound service for the whole family, with a focus on reducing childhood poverty and improving social-emotional learning, language development, and reading proficiency before third grade.

The program supports families in Whitehaven, Hickory Hill, and Frayser 

“Early education really provides the building blocks that often predict success or failure,” said Humber. “So much of what a child needs in those early years could be delivered if mom, dad, aunt or grandmother are there to help push that child to success.”

Connectors are now using FaceTime and Facebook to connect with their families and post videos of parents having quality conversations with their kids.

“For many of our families, that has been very soothing and relatable during this strange season. But for other families, this has really amplified the already existing digital divide,” Humber said.

Humber said Agape is applying for grants to ensure families or entire apartment complexes have consistent internet access and laptops in the future.

“This pandemic really created an education conundrum for our kids,” said Agape’s Lori Humber.
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Read more articles by Ashley Davis.

Ashley Foxx Davis is an author, educator, artist and Memphis native. She's been featured in Glamour, Ebony, and Essence magazines; Blackenterprise.com; TheRoot.com; and BET.com. Find her at kifanipress.com.