In the years before a child enters kindergarten, the most rapid growth period of their brain is taking place. Education-wise, this time is nothing short of crucial for a child’s development – exploring language, learning numbers, advancing problem-solving skills. But there are many children who start out at a distinct disadvantage in inadequate early learning programs. Joan Whitson, Erika Bauserman, and the Early Learning Coalition are stepping up to make a change and start children on a path toward success.
The Early Learning Coalition works in a lot of aspects of early education. They assist parents in finding quality childcare, help children with special needs, organize school readiness programs, and assist with registration for VPK. But Joan has found her place as the Early Literacy Outreach Manager, working with a team of volunteers to coordinate outreach programs at schools across North Florida. Joan holds a business degree and, over the years, has worked in a number of positions – Parks and Recreation Director and cookie business owner to name a few. She found her heart though, when she began working in at a hospice. “I discovered my love for working with volunteers,” she says, “and saw the tremendous impact that volunteers can make.” But after moving to St. Augustine and working with Haven Hospice, Joan needed a change. In 2010, she was offered a position at the ELC.
“Literacy is our focus because it is so important to a child’s development,” says Joan. “The average child begins school with a vocabulary of 3,000-5,000 words. Children who are not read to in early childhood may start school with a vocabulary of as little as 300-500 words. We distribute between 8,000-10,000 books a year to area children. Driving all around six counties in my little red car, putting on programs, and delivering books is the most rewarding thing ever.”
The same year that she was hired on, Joan began the ELC’s volunteer program. ELC volunteers can become Reading Pals – who read to preschool children once a week – or work in literacy outreach, putting on programs and interactive storytimes. At the heart of these volunteers is Erika Bauserman, who was a preschool teacher for more than 30 years. “I saw an article in The Record by Joan about ELC and the Reading Pal volunteer program,” says Erika. “That was in 2013. And the rest, as they say, is history.” The experience of bringing literature to these children is, Joan and Erika say, life-changing. “To see 3 and 4-year-old children, with such diverse backgrounds, fall in love with books and see their interest piqued by a concept, illustration, or narrative humor is what makes volunteering so special and new,” says Erika. “Never forget the power of a real handheld book that you can drool on and splatter with juice!”
“Last year,” says Joan, “when we were in a preschool giving out book bags, a little 4-year-old girl looked up at me with tears in her eyes after receiving her bag and said, “Are these really for me? I don’t have any books at home.” That broke my heart to know. [It is] so important to read to a child at a young age. The more books they have the better.”