In Manatee and Sarasota counties, volunteers find ways to fight illiteracy

Bobbi Bordes, a volunteer with the Books for Kids organization, reads to a group of children at Gocio Elementary School in Sarasota. Photo courtesy of Ted Lindenberg. 

Bobbi Bordes, a volunteer with the Books for Kids organization, reads to a group of children at Gocio Elementary School in Sarasota. Photo courtesy of Ted Lindenberg. 

By Chris Anderson

SARASOTA–When Ted Lindenberg was principal of a school in New York, a successful businessman he knew walked into his office and began to cry.

The man, it turned out, had a young daughter at home, and each night his wife would read a book to her. When his wife was gone he became the one who would read, only it was always the same book, the one he had memorized.

One night his daughter said she was tired of the same old story and wanted to hear a different one. The man's heart sank.

He couldn't read.

"It's not intelligence,'' Lindenberg says. "He was bright enough to run a business yet he could not read.

"What bothers me is we associate a lack of reading with intelligence, and it may not be related. It may just be a disability that was never picked up or a handicap that was never picked up.''

It is believed that 37 million adults are functionally illiterate in this country, a remarkable statistic. How do people manage when serious issues that require reading arise that are out of their comfort zones? And now, in the ever-changing computer age, reading is more important than ever.

"What bothers me is I'm not sure illiteracy ranks very high in terms of people helping,'' Lindenberg says. "What do you do? How do you reduce that number? To me you reduce that number by reaching out to boys and girls, and that's what we're doing.''

What Lindenberg, 70, has done is form a group called Books for Kids through the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch. It works like this: A group of volunteers comes to area schools and reads to second- and third-graders. They also engage them in discussion that improves concentration, listening and critical-thinking skills. Best of all, each child gets a book to take home.

The volunteers come from all walks of life. They are dentists, doctors, bankers, retirees. When they are done reading to the kids they tell them about their professions, about what they can achieve in the future. It all starts with reading.

The Books for Kids program is having its second annual luncheon at noon on Thursday at the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club. Among the guests will be Manatee County Schools Superintendent Diana Greene.

When this all began two years ago there were three volunteers handing out 60 books a month at one school in Manatee County. Now, 55 volunteers go to seven schools in Manatee and Sarasota counties and hand out 1,200 books per month. The program is close to handing out 20,000 books total, and $27,000 a year is spent on the books, the money coming through fundraising. The books are stored at Peace Presbyterian Church on State Road 64. They used to be in Lindenberg's garage, in place of his car.

The idea is to focus on reading and critical-thinking skills at a young age to prevent problems as adults, problems that become both personal and societal. More than one million children drop out of school each year, Lindenberg says, and reports have stated that United States businesses suffer from $220 billion a year in lost productivity because of low literacy.

More alarming statistics: According to Lindenberg, the ratio of books to children is 12:1 in middle-income neighborhoods. In low-income neighborhoods, there is one age-appropriate book for every 300 children.

"We ask these boys and girls to read, and they don't even have the books at home to read,'' Lindenberg says. "And that is one of the purposes of the program.

"People should be talking about literacy more. We need to help these boys and girls. We need to reach them.''