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Meet Carol Henault of Reading Is Fundamental of Southern California (RIFSoCal)

Today we’d like to introduce you to Carol Henault.

Carol, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Who would predict a Cornell University biochemistry major would end up as the Executive Director of a children’s literacy nonprofit – certainly not me. But when I think back, my earliest memories are filled with books – The Black Stallion, Fury, Bobbsey Twins, Lassie, My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty, National Velvet, Nancy Drew, Little Women. Even then, I escaped into books – they filled my life. So, not so surprising I landed where I did. Thirty years after college, I found myself with two teenage daughters, ready – and needing – to go back to work to continue my career. But I soon realized that biochemical research and technology had passed me by. I would have to go back to school to catch up – and this wasn’t plausible as I needed a job ASAP. And then, serendipitously, I stumbled into my first nonprofit job working with kids – helping people – and suddenly felt filled with fresh energy and a flourishing passion. And I thought – what if I could combine my love for books with helping kids?

Being the Executive Director of Reading Is Fundamental of Southern California – better known as RIFSoCal – for the past 15 years has been, and IS, my dream come true. It is one of the most important jobs I could have and every day, when I walk into our warehouse on the way to my office, all I smell are BOOKS – all I see are BOOKS – and I’m in heaven – and determined to make a difference in our kids’ lives. “So Many Books, So Little Time” is painted on my office door, and my book, almost always with me, is on my table – ready in case I have a few minutes to read. I’m happy to admit my book is my security blanket.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Thirty years after college, I found myself with two teenage daughters, ready – and needing – to go back to work to continue my career. But I soon realized that biochemical research and technology had passed me by. I would have to go back to school to catch up – and this wasn’t plausible as I needed a job ASAP. And then, serendipitously, I stumbled into my first nonprofit job working with kids – helping people – and suddenly felt filled with fresh energy and a flourishing passion.

Please tell us about Reading Is Fundamental of Southern California (RIFSoCal).
In our 47-year history RIFSoCal has distributed 4.7M books and served 1.6M children! RIFSoCal is the largest childhood literacy nonprofit in our region. We currently partner with 307 high poverty preschools, elementary and middle schools, Head Start programs and community-based organizations throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties. This year alone we will serve over 60,000 disadvantaged children, providing them with almost 200,000 new books to build their home libraries. Children experience the wonder of three Motivational Reading Events each year that celebrate literacy, bring together school, parents and community, and surround them with a growing certainty that literacy really must be important. At the conclusion of each event, children choose a brand-new book – many for the first time, to take home and keep as their own – a book to discover the magic of reading for FUN. What a wonderful gift we give them!

“Thanks to the RIFSoCal team for the passion and relentless effort in supplying all children with that LOVE of books and reading!” “My Daughter chose On the Road, a book about vehicles. She couldn’t wait to share it with her dad during their evening reading time. It is an awesome thing to see children excited about reading.” “Thank you for the RIFSoCal books. Thank you for adopting our school. The free books will help us learn. They will help us love reading. I enjoyed reading my book about the tropical rainforest. I learned that we need to save the tropical rainforest. It was thoughtful of you to help our school. It made me adore reading.” “Ninety percent of those we serve live at or below the poverty level and the excitement each child has at the thought of choosing something that is their ‘own’ is priceless.” “Children love to get their hands on new books. They carry them around for days to read during playtimes!” No wonder I’m so passionate about the work I do every day…

I’m also plagued by the children’s literacy crisis in our country: Two out of three children living in poverty in the United States today have no books of their own. Students who live in poverty and cannot read on grade level by 3rd grade are 13 times less likely to graduate high school on time. There is a direct correlation between poor literacy, high school dropout, and ultimately crime and incarceration. Quite simply, letting a child choose a new book to keep as their very own is one of the most powerful yet simple tools we have to support our children’s development. Instilling a love of reading determines whether a person will become employable at a living wage, whether they will participate in their communities – or whether we will lose their talents. As former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings once said, “Reading is more than a pastime. In today’s world, it’s a survival skill. A child who can read is a child who can learn and a child who can learn is a child who can succeed.” Onwards!

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