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Reading Is Fundamental® Announces 2015 Volunteer of the Year Award Winners

Washington, D.C. – April 7, 2015 – Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), the nation’s largest children’s literacy organization, announced its four recipients of the 2015 Anne Hazard Richardson RIF Volunteer of Year Award (VOYA). RIF is proud to recognize Maira Burns of McAllen, TX; Justina Johnson Head of Northern Virginia; Wanda Dawson of Bayboro, NC; and Ellen Halliday of Brooklyn, NY.

“Reading Is Fundamental is powered by exceptional volunteers who are passionate about our mission and the children we serve,” said Carol H. Rasco, President and CEO of RIF. “Their commitment to creating extraordinary experiences and opportunities for children ensures that they will not only have books, but the inspiration and confidence to pursue greater futures for themselves. Through their hard work and dedication, Maira, Justina, Wanda, and Ellen are setting students up for success in school and beyond.”

Since 1998, the Anne Richardson Volunteer of the Year Award has been presented annually to RIF volunteers whose dedication to improving children’s literacy through service to local RIF programs is truly outstanding and inspiring. By offering this national recognition, RIF seeks to engage children’s literacy volunteers and advocates in celebrating the spirit and practice of volunteerism and honoring the accomplishments of those who encourage and nurture young readers. This prestigious award is named for RIF’s chair emerita, the late Anne Hazard Richardson. The 2015 award winners will be recognized during RIF’s Z IS FOR MOOSE Gala in Washington, D.C., on May 19. For more information about RIF’s Gala, visit http://www.rif.org/gala.

Brief stories describing each volunteer’s support in their community follow:

Maira Burns, McAllen, Texas
When Maira Burns took up the reins as Elementary English Language Arts Coordinator for the McAllen Independent School District two years ago, she immediately saw the promise in participating in a RIF research study to improve literacy in high-need schools.

“It was a no-brainer for me to jump on it, especially because of the low literacy rate in our area,” she says.

Maira is responsible for English languages arts for preschool through fifth grade at 20 schools—which equates to literacy programming for just under 10,000 students living on the border of Texas and Mexico. In McAllen, where many adults are functionally illiterate or do not speak English, it can be difficult for parents to support their children’s learning.

Which is why Maira was so excited to roll out RIF in her schools and add RIF’s multicultural books to McAllen classrooms. “Many teaching tools use experiences of things our kids are not really familiar with, like snowboarding or skiing,” she shared. “When they saw arroz con leche (rice pudding) in a RIF book, parents were making it at home to bring to class! It’s huge for our kids to see that other people have the exact same experiences that they do.”

Now that the study has concluded, Maira is finding ways to piggyback off the success of RIF to keep parents and the community engaged, and to help kids continue to read outside of school. She has recently led an initiative to pair a 1-to-1 iPad program with the local library, giving children access to interactive eBooks at no cost to their families.

Justina Johnson “JJ” Head, Northern Virginia
For Justina Johnson “JJ” Head, RIF means family.

After the birth of her first child, JJ left teaching but still wanted to contribute to her community. So when her mother—a RIF volunteer at the time who still serves on the board for RIF of Northern Virginia today—suggested volunteering for the entirely volunteer-run RIF of NOVA, JJ jumped at the opportunity. But starting as newsletter editor over 20 years ago, she could not have guessed how her relationship with RIF would grow.

As Treasurer, then Vice President, and President of RIF of NOVA a few times, JJ has seen RIF through every twist and turn. Currently VP of RIF of NOVA, she oversees operations at 41 schools across Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, and Prince William County, hosting workshops to provide teachers with ideas for fun book distributions and activities, and supporting them in procuring books.

“People think, ‘Oh, Northern Virginia, it’s a rich area,’ but there are also a lot of people struggling,” says JJ. “Our volunteers recognize the fact that these kids would not have any books if we were not here.”

As President of RIF of NOVA when RIF national’s funding was cut in 2011, JJ formed a “Future of RIF” committee to ensure children would continue to receive books despite the cuts. The committee now focuses on fundraising that is crucial to maintaining RIF programs for Northern Virginia schools.

“It’s so special to the kids. You think they love TV and video games, but this is so important,” she says. “These kids hand it down to their siblings. Entire families have libraries because of RIF.”


Wanda Dawson, Bayboro, North Carolina
Wanda Dawson, Superintendent of the Pamlico County School District in Bayboro, North Carolina, did not hesitate when she was approached by RIF to participate in a research study to improve literacy.

“The fact that these kids would have the opportunity to take these books home—it was just wonderful,” Wanda said. “We had some multicultural books, but not a lot. Our Hispanic population grew from zero to 20 kids and that may not sound like a lot, but it meant a lot to them.”

For the few families who could not attend the distributions over the summer, Wanda loaded up two county vehicles with the RIF books and drove them out to the students’ homes.

While the research study provided take-home books for students in second and third-grade, as well as fourth grade during the second year of the study, Wanda took her own measures to expand the program throughout the school. “We collected over 5,000 books so that every child, kindergarten through fifth grade, got those books for the summer.”

Now that the study has concluded, Wanda is continuing the collection to keep giving books to every k-5 student before summer break. The books are important, she explains, because “we have children that live 35-40 miles from the library. It’s hard to get there over the summer, and even if you can you have to choose between using gas to go to the library or for Daddy to go to work.”

Wanda knows how powerful books can be. Pamlico received its first RIF books and activities after Hurricane Irene in 2011. “It devastated the county,” Wanda says. “RIF was the perfect program because people had literally lost everything. But they had the books.”


Ellen Halliday, Brooklyn, New York
Ellen Halliday manages RIF programs for Brooklyn Public Library—37 libraries and more than 15 hospitals and clinics. The Brooklyn Public Library has been with RIF for over 35 years. Ellen has been RIF Coordinator for Brooklyn Public Library for nearly 15 of those years.

“Because we’ve had RIF for so long, we have parents who bring their kids in, and the parents were RIF kids, too,” Ellen says. “They’ll travel to find RIF.”

At the Library, rather than stage traditional book distributions, RIF books are tied to afterschool programs that cultivate children’s familiarity with borrowing and returning books. While they become used to visiting the library and receive support from local librarians in choosing books they’ll enjoy, they are also given the opportunity to build their home collections through RIF books.

“One of the legacies of RIF,” Ellen says, “is when we come up with new programs, we try to build in money for books that children can keep.” Currently, two additional programs include a “books for ownership” component: Ready, Set, Kindergarten!, which shows parents and caregivers what they can do to help their children’s literacy development, and Read! Write! Create!, a comic-book making workshop for children.

Brooklyn Public Library also runs a robust summer program that keeps kids engaged when they’re out of school. “Summer reading is year-round here,” she says, laughing. Last year, children spent the summer doing activities related to robots. This year, the theme is “Every hero has a story” and centers around superheroes, though it could as easily refer to Ellen and her own work to inspire children to read.

About Reading Is Fundamental® (RIF)
Reading Is Fundamental delivers free books and literacy resources to children and families in underserved communities in the United States. By giving children the opportunity to own a book, RIF inspires them to become lifelong readers and achieve their full potential. As the nation’s largest children’s literacy nonprofit, RIF has placed 412 million books in the hands of more than 40 million children since it was established in 1966. To learn more and help provide books to kids who need them most, visit RIF.org.

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Media Contact:
Ameesha Sampat
Reading Is Fundamental
asampat@rif.org
202-536-3438

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