In episode 5 of COVID Conversations, UNLV Urban Leadership Graduate Student, Ashley Garrido, interviews Mary Nelson- Assistant Director of Spread the Word Nevada. Spread the Word Nevada is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to promote childhood literacy in low income communities within Nevada. Spread the Word Nevada’s goals are to improve the access of books for underprivileged children and improve literacy skills through mentorship/reading programs.
COVID-19 presented a unique set of challenges for the nonprofit industry -- funding interruptions, increased demand for services, pivot to virtual platforms, safety concerns and more have impacted some nonprofits' ability to push their missions forward. Through our podcast, COVID Conversations: An Introspective of the Impact on Nonprofits, we present interviews of individuals representing an array of nonprofit organizations. We believe the information from these organizations further provides an illuminating picture of the depth and scale of the impact of the pandemic on the nonprofit sector.
Hello and welcome to COVID Conversations, an introspective of the impact on nonprofits. In today's episode, we will learn more about Spread the Word Nevada, whose mission is to improve children's literacy. Spread the Word Nevada is currently active in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. Today we will be speaking with Mary Nelson, the organization's Assistant Director. Let's learn more about how COVID-19 has impacted this organization.
Can you please state your name and role within your organization? So, my name is Mary Nelson and I am the Assistant Director of Programs for Spread the Word Nevada. Perfect. How long have you been with your organization and what motivated you to join the organization? came to spread the word of ADA in 2014. So that is seven years. And prior to that I was a school teacher for many, many years and worked with as a special educator in the prison system with youth offenders and so have always valued education and getting out there and working with kids that were more in need than other kids or more in need than my own children. So then when I came to Las Vegas, I moved from the East Coast and came to Las Vegas in 2013 and did work as a special educator for a program with CCSD and then found Spread the Word Nevada and so I've been here ever since.
Awesome. Thank you so much. Can you please provide a quick overview of your organization, its mission and its
incredible work here in Las Vegas? Well, the organization started in 2001, so we're 20 years old. We celebrated our 20th birthday and it started out that a couple of teachers in the district, one was a librarian and one was a sixth grade math teacher, noticed that kids weren't having access to books. All kids were not being able to access books. So they wanted to, you know, kind of find a solution for that difficulty because we all know that when kids have access to books, obviously they're going to read more. So they started talking to their friends and saying, hey, you got books that your kids aren't reading anymore and would you donate them? So the librarian could put those in her, I don't know if you remember the old Scholastic Book Fairs, but she could put those there. So kids coming in with their pennies that couldn't afford to buy a Scholastic book, they were able to take a book from the book fair. So everybody would leave with a book. So that was kind of the premise of Spread the Word Nevada. And they started with kids to kids because it was kids who had giving their books so that, spread the word, could then in turn give those to kids that did not have. Our mission really was to build home libraries, get books into the hands of kids and struggling readers, and just do it one book at a time. So, you know, we're past six million books given since 2001. We, during a normal, if you can call it that, school year, we give out about 50,000 books a month. We're in 62 Clark County School District schools and we're up at actually we moved to Reno also in Washoe, so we have three schools up in Washoe too. So we're delivering books every month to 65 schools across the state. So pretty powerful stuff.
Very powerful. How do you choose what school is able to acquire those books?
How do they qualify? Yeah, we do have qualifying standards. So one of them is
they have to be 80% more free or reduced lunch. And we have a, when they were doing the star rating, they had to be under the three stars. So they had to be either a one or two star school. We also look at their literacy rates at third grade and they have to be less than 60% of their kids reading at grade level. So those are kind of some of the things that we look at when we decide to take on a school. We do have about a hundred maybe, 110 kids, our schools still on our waiting list. So you know obviously with more funders we can take on more schools, we can serve more kids.
Perfect. Can you expand on why it's important for everybody to know why it is important for these kids with low literacy scores to obtain these books?
Research shows, obviously, that the kids that don't have access to books have lower literacy scores, and that when kids have access to books and we believe in choice, so we also ask that when these books get to the school, the school allows the kids to choose their books. So between having access and choosing the books, they're more likely to be reading. We also work with a lot of second language kids or a lot of kids in homes where maybe even the parents don't speak or read in English and so it's the kids you know they need to just without access there's no way to advance. The reason why we don't go to every school is just because the kids in the schools that don't need us or the kids and we all know there are some kids ever in every school that would need us but if the majority of kids in a school if the families can provide the books, we don't want our resources going to those families because they can do it themselves.
Yes, perfect. And I know that there is a correlation with low literacy scores in the third grade and dropout rates. Can you expand on that?
That is absolutely true. They not only talk about how low literacy skills then increase the likelihood of a child not completing high school and dropping out and a lot of these children may even be not I don't think families would encourage them necessarily but a lot of these families are struggling financially too and so they need their children to be working so they're not as I mean when I grew up education was a big thing you know you went to school and you did well and and there was just no two cents about it because in the long run that was what's what's going to take me out of you know the poverty or whatever that I was in. So I think the other piece of that is after working in prison system I saw kids who not only dropped out but then it was kind of like a pipeline to prison too. So they were not good readers or they had learning disabilities or reading disabilities, dropped out of school and then started you know earning money doing things that may be illegal and ended up in prison. So I think that there's statistically and research shows that if you're not reading proficiently by third grade, which is when they teach them to read, so you're actually learning to read until third grade and after third grade you're actually reading to learn. So there's a total difference. And if you think about four, five, six, seven, all the way up through, you're not learning to read anymore or you should not be having to learn to read anymore. You should be able to be able to read and then especially when you get to high school middle school a lot of it is that whole nonfiction kind of thing where you're reading books for information and learning. So that's why that whole Read by Grade 3 initiative that they have in the state came about because research shows that that's just kind of the cutoff. If you don't know how to read by grade three and you're not doing it proficiently, you're going to continue to get further and further and further behind. And what kid wants to be in sixth grade not being able to read? You know, peer pressure and peer groups and all those kinds of things. So by the time you get to ninth and tenth and you can't read and you can't keep up. I mean I probably would say why bother
keeping going to school. Definitely, a lot of people don't know that reading is
the foundation and the basis of learning. So absolutely, absolutely and we
are not, our brains are not automatically, you know it's just not we're born and we kind of automatically know how to read and every child's brain is different and trauma, there's so many things that can affect them being able to learn to read. It's a huge, huge problem in the United States and definitely in Nevada. Thank you. Thank you
for explaining so fully. Next question, to what extent has COVID-19 impacted
services? Well I would say I was looking at that question and there's a couple of different things there that I would say. Okay. We are not doing same as usual operations obviously. We in some ways we have been able to provide more programming. For instance we have a breakfast and snack time with books program where we we model reading to families and they would come once a month to the schools and listen to a story and everybody gets a book to take home. Which was, is always a fun thing and very, you know, has been very successful. Well, no longer could we go into the schools. So we had to change it up and we went virtual. But instead of only being able to do it once a week, we were pre-recording every single week and providing families with four pre-recorded story times so that they could then use those with their children in the home, teachers were using them in the classroom, you know, through, because when there's distance learning and teachers would use them on the screens with the kids. And of course, all our stories, we always have an extension kind of activity or a literacy component to it that our phenomenal facilitator does, Miss Anna, by the way, is her, she's got a gift. She truly does. Her whole theater background is just like, oh, if I don't know if you've seen any of them, but I could certainly send you a copy of one of them and she's just incredible. So in that way, instead of just eight story times or breakfast and snack time with books for each school for a school year they're getting eight times four so they're getting a heck of a lot more stories and it's been very very successful. Some schools have continued to ask for live sessions so then Ms. Anna is on just with that school but we also send them the pre-recordings every week. So that's a program where we've been able to expand and reach more people because you know not all families can come to the school before or after school if they're working and so they've never been able to take advantage of our breakfast at the same time as books. Obviously we couldn't go into the schools to do our Books and Buddies program as you well know. We weren't allowed on campus. We're not sure how that's going to look in the fall because we're not sure we'll be able to be on campus again. For our books on break, we did that program also. We did it virtually, so we did the same kind of thing for Boys and Girls Clubs across Southern Nevada. We, Ms. Anna got on and did a live session and each of the clubs would have the kids on in the classroom and they'd be watching the screen and interacting with her that way. And then we also sent out weekly recordings to all of our sites, YMCA's and Boys and Girls Clubs and community centers last summer. And we're prepping for that right now. So in some ways we've grown our programs and then in other ways they've just changed. For instance, our Kids to Kids where we deliver books every month, we decided we would just deliver them every two months but each kid would have an opportunity to get two to three books on that delivery. And that way the schools didn't have as many deliveries and people coming, you know, to their campuses when they weren't allowed to have that. And we had to really depend on the schools to get those books into the hands of families. You know, they'd have families come drive through the parking lot for resources and stuff. And so they try to get those books into their homes. The other thing we did that is way more than what we've ever done is during the height of the initial pandemic that March and April, we formed a coalition with public education foundation and communities and schools. And we started something called the direct care for kids initiative. We had all these books. We knew kids were not, a lot of them didn't even have technology to get on yet. We knew we needed to get these books out and we worked with those two other organizations and used our warehouse and our books to put together really packed bags and with five books for each child at whatever level they were at with school supplies, with hygiene kits. SANS Cares donated thousands of hygiene kits for kids and we were able to push out I think 30,000 bags we pushed out and we were able to also help with the middle school and high school. So if the families, communities and schools ended up calling all their families and saying hey we have these books and all these other things for your child and if you want them we can have them dropped off at your doorstep. So that's it was direct care for kids and we had two local businesses which were Liberty Lock and I think it was AT&T and of course they didn't have any work. So they donated their drivers and their vans to come each morning and we'd get all these bags and ready with a list of where the families lived, what their address was, and they'd just drive up, take the bag, put it on the doorstep, ring the doorbell, and leave. Take the bag. And so we were able to get a lot of books out that way. Perfect. Which was really fun to partner with other organizations that are just as passionate about kids as we are. That's amazing, amazing work. And one of the things we were able to do is we looked at that waiting list of schools because we had some of our schools that said, we just can't take the books. There's no way for us to get them out to the families. Please get them to another school in need that can. So we were able to go to our waiting list hey we'd like to give you a one-time book delivery for all your kids and if you can get them out to the kids that's you know that's what we asked you to do so we were able to actually bring some of those schools on and also if they requested it we would send them the pre-recordings to so they could use those so they now have those waiting list schools now have a taste of who spread the word about it definitely what we offer and so when it comes time to, you know, when we find funders that can bring on new schools, they'll already have been familiar with us.
Awesome. So has your organization experienced any of the following as a result of the pandemic, budget cuts, permanent layoffs or furloughs?
Well, this is the one that I kind of talked to Jodi about because it's not my forte and you know that I'm a programs person. I like kids and books and school but I'm not sure we had a lot of budget cuts so to speak at the organization. We tried to keep everybody on staff. There were people that were for a period of time laid off when everything closed down and there was only like two or three of us coming into the offices every day. Everybody else was working from home but they were able to bring back almost everybody that wanted to come back. We did have some staff that just said no they don't feel comfortable you know or they had already one of the I know one of our warehouse gals had already promised her sister not knowing that we were going to be able to open and do this direct care for kids. She had promised her sister she would babysit for her all summer, so she didn't, you know, some of our younger people. We've been able to keep Miss Anna on by doing all these pre-recordings and these live sessions. So our facilitators, we have, there was one facilitator that has been permanently laid off unless things in the fall really pick up. But that's really about it. I mean, we've had, obviously, we've had to tighten our belts. And one of the things that has helped is doing things virtually, because then you're not incurring cost of traveling and, you know, that kind of thing, too. So. Perfect. That's good news to hear, though. Yeah, we have taken advantage, obviously, what they've offered federally for that we could get people back up.
And I do know that your program does rely heavily on volunteer work. Would you like to tell our viewers how they can sign up?
Yes, I would. And it was really interesting through this whole direct care for kids. We were totally shut down from volunteers. No volunteers could come in. So it was our staff and then like the communities and school staff, they wanted to keep, they weren't going into the schools, so they wanted to keep them on board and doing things. So they'd come and help get these bags and all put together with us and so that was kind of fun. But we really, really depend on volunteers, especially to get books ready for kids. With that many books going out and we never want to put a book in the hand of a child that is torn and tattered. We want them to be in the most pristine condition to get that. If they are torn and tattered, we don't even put them in. Those go to recycle or maybe if they're good enough for a teacher's bin, because we have teachers that can come in and take for free any of our materials or teachers' resources that we get donated. So we do depend on our volunteers to get those books cleaned. We just don't have enough manpower to do it ourselves. And so we did open up again for our volunteers and I can't remember exactly. We've been doing it for a while though and at a reduced rate. So instead of 60 people in our volunteer room, we only have 20 at a time and they're socially distanced and all those kinds of things but that's really been helpful. So volunteers are really our life's blood not only getting the books prepared obviously you know with Books and Buddies when we need mentors to work with struggling readers in the schools those are all that's all volunteer-based when we go to breakfast and snack time with books we need volunteers to come and help get out give out the books and the snacks and the juice to all the families as they go through so volunteers really are our life's blood and we would never, if we had to hire people and pay them, we would never be able, we would close our doors. There's just too much that our volunteers do for us to keep us going. So we love our volunteers. We love our volunteers. They can go to spread the word nevada.org and then there is, you know, kind of a what can you do or how can I help kind of thing and then they can sign up. At this time they can sign up for the cleanings that are happening every week. Right now they're Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and there's a morning session and an afternoon session and so they can come in and do that and then we do have some volunteers that come in on a regular basis that like maybe every Friday they'll come in from one to three. And so we can use, actually, if they are consistent and dedicated, we'll put them in the warehouse with our warehouse crew to do some of those other things that need to be done too. So, during that direct care for kids, it was really interesting, because we had some very dedicated people that came on board that we didn't even know before. So we had a gal named Sarah, and she said, I'm raising money, I want you to buy diversity books with this money I want these to get into the hands of kids we know that and she raised like $10,000 that's amazing work yeah and so that was just like some single person that said and so I was able to get on and order books brand-new books actually that's incredible yeah so we had we had things like that that happened it was like almost a little bit miraculous in the way it all worked out, because it was such a go for a while.
Yes, that's good work though, having loyal people that are trying to help the community. That's impressive. All righty, and does your organization operate on a fiscal year or a calendar year? We're a fiscal year, so we go July 1 to June 30. Perfect and let's see as you prepare for your next budget year what major operational changes are expected now that you're
entering into a second year of the pandemic? Well one of the things I have to say here is that we are heavily dependent on what Clark County School District does or says or allows. So we will continue with our virtual programming certainly for a breakfast and snack time with books. Hopefully if it comes you know if at some point Clark County says we can go back in. You know my my gut says they're not going to allow 300 people coming into the multipurpose room you know for breakfast with books. But you know maybe I'm totally wrong. So we want to, we need to plan. So we need to plan what we're going to do because we can't wait until the week before school starts and they say yes or no or you know whatever. So we're planning on doing what we have been doing virtually. Okay. And keeping that going because it's been successful. We are, obviously we are, we've had to go and get our supplies out of four out of six of our centers because they needed that space. And it's good to just bring it all back in house and get all that stuff back here so we can kind of go through it and see what we have and what we're going to need if we open again, you know, next year when we can. So I think that's probably the biggest thing. We can still deliver books and we're hoping that they're going to allow some of our, if our mentors can't go in on a regular basis at first, that they'll allow maybe some of our volunteers, mentors that love to see the kids go in and help distribute the books that go in. It'd be on a smaller scale. So we're toying with a lot of different ideas, but we the mercy of the school district.
Alrighty, and we all have our favorites. What's a project that you're very passionate about?
Obviously Books and Buddies.
Books and Buddies.
It was kind of my baby. When I first started, it was mentors going out to any schools that they wanted to and I was like, oh my gosh, there's, you know, and there was only like maybe 60 mentors at that time and I didn't know whether they showed up at the school. I did not know if there was a child there for them to work with. I didn't know if the school even knew they were coming, you know, those kinds of things. So, so the second year is when we started the pilot program of doing centers and asking two of our schools at that time if they would give us a room and the kids, we would provide everything else. We would put a staff member in there as you've already experienced. Yeah. So that's really been, you know, one of my babies. But we are also in talks with and we actually just wrote a grant for and we're hoping to get it to. We know that the earlier, the better, and especially because of the pandemic, we we realize and we've known it, I guess, intellectually. But schools aren't in session. Who is teaching their kids? It's the families. They're the first parents. And so now we just wrote a grant and we've been planning for almost 18 months, two years, this zero to five program that we can add so that we can get even capture the kids earlier and work with families to do lap times and get books every month to these kids at whatever age they are. That's amazing work. Yeah, so that's we're hoping that that grant comes through and we'll be able to do that. I think we'll do it at some point. If you think about it, it
sounds like a preventative measure, you know? Exactly, exactly, and we've all and
we think we're we think we're in a position to be able to do that now with you know what we have so far for the elementary you know the kind of pre-k or K through 5 we think we're ready to move on board and you know do something like readers in training you know perfect even at a
lower at a lower age age so yeah that's incredible well I'm excited to see how I'll help you guys. Yeah, exactly. Alrighty. And your organization does incredible work. Would you like to share to our listeners how they can learn more about and support your efforts?
Well, obviously, we need volunteers, so that would be great. And you can find that on our website. Obviously, we need donations to continue to get books to continue that you know we can't keep up just by by people donating 50,000 books a month it just doesn't happen anymore so we have to we have some vendors that we go out and buy books at a very very reduced rate to supplement us so money book drives we have and our volunteer manager can work with any group or any private citizen to, you know, create a book drive. She can help them through that whole process. Money, obviously. Money, obviously. So, really, those are some key ways that the general public can support our efforts. Also, going out and talking about us. So, Ashley, it's so funny because I'll go into a place or a school and I just think everybody knows about us. And they'll be like, Spread the Word Nevada, what's that?
They don't know.
I can't believe you don't know about us.
We seem like we're all over the place.
Yes. And even some schools we go into that don't. I don't know, because I live and breathe it. I think everybody knows about it. Yeah. Because that's your truth. Spreading the word is good.
Spreading the word.
So this is awesome.
We appreciate Mary with Spread the Word Nevada for joining us today.
As we continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word, we're going to continue
to learn how non-profits can help spread the word. And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word. And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word.
And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word. And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word. And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word. And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word.
And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word. And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word. And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word. And we're going to continue to learn how non-profits can help spread the word. We appreciate Mary with Spread the Word Nevada for joining us today. As we continue to learn how nonprofits have been impacted, we certainly wish them the best in the future. Thank you for listening to COVID Conversations, an introspective of the impact on nonprofits. If you would like to get involved with Spread the Word Nevada, please visit their website at spreadthewordnevada.org. In our next episode, we will hear from Joe's Movement Emporium.
It's sure to be another incredible conversation. Again, thank you for listening and until next time. It's sure to be another incredible conversation. It's sure to be another incredible conversation.
Again, thank you for listening and until next time.