'Magical' Work with Early Literacy

February 10, 2023

By San Diego Foundation

Working with Reading Legacies’ Book Bridges program has been a transformative experience for Maribel De La Rosa-Villa, Family Outreach Coordinator for the local literacy nonprofit.

As a volunteer and staff member with Reading Legacies, she hosts workshops and records residents of the Las Colinas Detention and Re-Entry Center reading books to their children to help facilitate supportive family relationships through reading aloud. She knows first-hand that the experience will help these women repair their relationships with their young children.

“I see brokenness in these mothers and feel it because I’ve been there,” Maribel said at a recent Reading Legacies board meeting.

Maribel first encountered Reading Legacies during her own stay at Las Colinas. At the time, it gave her an opportunity to stay engaged with her children, whether through the recorded storytelling or in follow-up phone calls with them about the books she read. Her lived experience helps her empathize with the women she works with today.

“I record other mothers and see their progress,” she said. Since her transition out of Las Colinas, she has become a staff member at Reading Legacies, working in the same classroom she used as a former program participant.

Supporting Early Literacy

Reading Legacies’ Book Bridges program is supported in part by a grant from the San Diego Foundation (SDF) Early Childhood Initiative. Reading Legacies’ focus on supporting early literacy was a key part of its successful 2022 grant application. That year, the SDF Early Childhood Initiative partnered with the Dr. Seuss Foundation to expand the program’s focus to include early literacy.

“There are disparities in classrooms and teaching,” said Betty Mohlenbrock, Reading Legacies Founder and President. “Those early years with children are so formative. Third grade reading level is the marker with children, if they’re going up or down in their learning.”

As a former educator and reading specialist, Betty would know.

Betty started her professional career as a classroom teacher and specialized in reading. Later, she created a nonprofit serving children of the military. When she retired, she knew her commitment had to continue. In 2010, she came out of retirement to establish Reading Legacies, a nonprofit dedicated to facilitating supportive relationships for children through family and friends reading aloud with them.

By helping to maintain the bonds between children and their parents, Reading Legacies Book Bridges program works to address the impact of incarceration on children, families and communities.

Bringing Back Book Bridges

With the start of the pandemic and the statewide stay-home order in 2020, Reading Legacies Book Bridges program also went on hiatus. Without the ability to enter county facilities, including Las Colinas and the East Mesa Re-Entry Center, the program was without clients to serve.

Thankfully, that changed in August 2022 when county facilities re-opened. Since then, the program has had 54 total participants in their programs at East Mesa and Las Colinas. Including its partnership with Vista Hill’s addiction recovery program, Reading Legacies has worked with a total of 124 parents and served more than 231 children.

The Book Bridges program is once again helping parents reconnect with their children.

While volunteering at Las Colinas, Reading Legacies board member and volunteer Elana Levens-Craig shared what she’s hearing from program participants, “they say, ‘I just feel like I’m a mom, not an inmate.’” Since restarting the program, Reading Legacies has held a dozen workshops at Las Colinas.

For mothers who are not as comfortable reading in English, the program also provides Spanish children’s books. Elana noted that while she is not fluent in Spanish, “You hear the love in their voices.”

For Betty, their work is an important part of the organization’s mission.

“Children are the ones we are focused on, it’s magical because we’re all working together,” she said.

Learn more about volunteering with Reading Legacies or donate to the Reading Legacies nonprofit fund.

About the Early Childhood Initiative

The Early Childhood Initiative Equitable Opportunities Grant supports nonprofit organizations implementing strategic efforts to build regional resilience by increasing access to high-quality, affordable early education and support services for San Diego’s young children, ages 0 – 5, and their caretakers.

Since 2018, the Early Childhood Initiative has awarded $8 million through 100 grants to more than 40 community-based organizations that uplift children, families and childcare providers, impacting more than 19,000 children, ages 0 to 5, throughout our region.

Learn more about the Early Childhood Initiative

Click here to read the article on the San Diego Foundation News & Notes Publication site.

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Nicole Vargas

My name is Nicole Vargas. I joined the Reading Legacies team in January 2023. I have a BA in Child Development from Point Loma Nazarene University and 6 years’ experience working with children from ages infancy to adolescence. My role as the Storybook Readers Program Manager is to oversee the programing and implementation of our Youth Readers and Storybook Inspirations programs. As a child development professional, I have firsthand experience seeing the immense impact that reading aloud to children has on their early literacy skills and relationship building within the family and community. One of my favorite children’s books is If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff.