Lost funding has put brakes on local Read Aloud program

Cost cutting has led to loss of vans, use of U-Haul vehicles

Read Aloud America Program Director Joanne Laird warms up the crowd packed into Puu Kukui Elementary School’s cafeteria in November. After the opening hoopla, students were taken to classrooms to be read aloud to by volunteer readers while Laird shared some parenting tips and read to the parents. The program lost federal funding in 2011, and it heads into 2018 without grant-in-aid funding from the state.
• The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Read Aloud America Program Director Joanne Laird warms up the crowd packed into Puu Kukui Elementary School’s cafeteria in November. After the opening hoopla, students were taken to classrooms to be read aloud to by volunteer readers while Laird shared some parenting tips and read to the parents. The program lost federal funding in 2011, and it heads into 2018 without grant-in-aid funding from the state. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

When Read Aloud America lost federal funding in 2011, Joanne and Larry Laird starting cutting costs.

The two moved out of a brick-and-mortar office and started operating out of their spare bedroom in Maalaea. They sold the nonprofit’s vans and rented U-Haul vans instead.

But as Read Aloud’s only two full-time employees on Maui, the Lairds are concerned they won’t be able to offer the usual reading programs for Maui schools, as Read Aloud heads into 2018 without grant-in-aid funding from the state.

“At this point, we’re keeping our fingers crossed that some money will come through, so we can go back out and bring reading to families,” said Joanne Laird, program director for Read Aloud.

The organization received $100,000 in grants for programs on Oahu and Maui in 2016 and 2017. About $90,000 of that went to Maui, said Larry Laird, director of operations and grants. However, Read Aloud did not get selected to receive grant money for 2018, which means it will only be able to visit schools that pay for a program. Right now, Kihei Elementary is the only school on that list.

Read Aloud America Program Director Joanne Laird warms up the crowd packed into Puu Kukui Elementary School’s cafeteria in November. After the opening hoopla, students were taken to classrooms to be read aloud to by volunteer readers while Laird shared some parenting tips and read to the parents. The program lost federal funding in 2011, and it heads into 2018 without grant-in-aid funding from the state.
• The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Read Aloud America Program Director Joanne Laird warms up the crowd packed into Puu Kukui Elementary School’s cafeteria in November. After the opening hoopla, students were taken to classrooms to be read aloud to by volunteer readers while Laird shared some parenting tips and read to the parents. The program lost federal funding in 2011, and it heads into 2018 without grant-in-aid funding from the state. • The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Read Aloud America was founded in Hawaii in 1995 by Jed Gaines, now the president of the organization. The nonprofit aims to promote literacy and a love of reading among adults and children. It was funded through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program until the state Department of Human Services made cuts in 2011, according to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser story at the time.

The decision was a big blow to Read Aloud, which had been expecting its $1.3 million annual grant to eventually double to $2.6 million, Larry Laird said. The nonprofit also wasn’t allowed to seek out other funding as long as it was receiving the grant.

“We just didn’t recover,” he said. “It’s very competitive out there.”

The Lairds tried to save money wherever they could. They have no full- or part-time employees and pay people per program. The one thing they’ve tried to keep the same is the reading program itself.

“We didn’t water down the programs to save money because we really feel we need to offer quality,” Joanne Laird said.

A Read Aloud program usually consists of four visits to a school over the course of 12 weeks. The Lairds’ goal is to associate reading with fun. During each program, they invite families to the schools for an evening of pizza, read-aloud sessions by age level and prize giveaways. At the end of the evening, kids get to take home one or two brand-new books.

Meanwhile, the parents sit down with Joanne Laird or the occasional guest presenter (musician George Kahumoku Jr. and former Mayor Charmaine Tavares have made appearances) to learn how to promote literacy at home.

“If kids are excited about reading, they’re going to be excited about their schoolwork,” Joanne Laird said. “What we’re trying to do is work on the attitudes and values of the family. It’s all about family. We really hit that big in our parenting. Please be a family again. Please take time to have dinner with your children instead of with screen devices.”

Both Joanne and Larry Laird are retired educators who moved to Maui in 2003. Joanne Laird was a teacher and school administrator with districts in the San Francisco Bay Area. Larry Laird was a teacher, principal and human resources director for the San Jose Unified School District, where he noticed how students’ struggles with reading often translated into academic and behavioral problems.

“Literacy goes across everything,” Kihei Elementary Principal Halle Maxwell said. “It’s not just about reading or writing classes. It’s about every subject in school. It’s about being college- and career-ready. Focusing on literacy is a great foundational piece for families because from there you can go into all different things.”

Maxwell said Read Aloud is “very engaging” and has gotten “a lot of positive feedback.”

“A lot of our families don’t necessarily have the same access to books or to the activities around literacy,” Maxwell said. “This is centrally located and is a great activity for the family. It gets a really large turnout.”

Kihei Elementary was the first school Read Aloud visited on Maui in 2009, according to the Lairds. The organization has been to every public elementary school on Maui, with the exception of Kula Elementary, at least once.

Attendance varies. Hana School, one of the smaller programs, averages about 190 kids and parents, while Pu’u Kukui Elementary School drew 840 on the first night of the program last month. Running a program can cost about $5,600, and sometimes up to $7,000 for Hana, Larry Laird said.

In January, Read Aloud plans to apply for state grants to fund programs in 2019.

In the meantime, one source of funding it can count on is the Hana 21st Century Community of Learners grant. The nonprofit is in the second year of a five-year grant that allows the Lairds to take the evening family literacy program to Hana 10 times a year. Read Aloud also does free, 30-minute story times at Whole Foods Kahului and the Maui Ocean Center, which is hosting an event on Jan. 21.

Read Aloud needs volunteers to read at events and help with registration, the Lairds said. The nonprofit also accepts donations of money, prizes and brand-new or gently used books. Examples of past prizes include skateboards, ukuleles and passes to the ocean center — all things families can use.

For more information or to apply to volunteer, visit readaloudamerica.org.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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