Twiggs County Family Connection—Bringing Literacy Home
“If you want to go far in life, what do you need to do?” Twiggs County Family Connection Executive Director Lea Toney constantly poses this question to the students in her county. They respond without hesitation: “Learn how to read!”
Improving childhood literacy is a priority for the Collaborative in a county where, according to 2019 Georgia Milestones scores, only 33.4% are proficient learners in English language arts.
Widespread health issues combined with a lack of access to food and books have always posed barriers to childhood literacy in Twiggs County, which ranks 159th in Georgia for health outcomes, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Residents struggle with diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and other issues.
“It trickles down because the parents aren’t getting the help they need, and then kids see this and think it’s a way of life,” said Toney, who works closely with partners like Live Well Twiggs, a community-led approach for supporting and promoting healthy living.
Families struggle with transportation limitations, making it harder to get nutritious meals at the county’s sole grocery store or to check out library books. “Several school bus routes are two hours one way,” said Makarios Sampson, Twiggs County Schools Family Engagement coordinator, who worked with Family Connection to establish seven Little Free Libraries to increase access to books.
The Collaborative is housed at Jeffersonville Elementary School, where Toney was teaching second grade when she began working with Family Connection in March—and the pandemic closed school buildings.
“I did a class Zoom for 18 students, and only two showed up,” said Toney. “There are a lot of reasons we didn’t see or hear from them.” Wi-Fi hotspots were placed around the large, rural county, but other barriers persisted: no computer or tablet in the home, one device for siblings to share, and working parents who couldn’t oversee virtual learning.
Before transitioning the Collaborative’s five-week summer reading program, now in its’ fifth year, to a virtual platform, Toney reached out to Jackie Curtis, executive director of Communities In Schools of Laurens County, for firsthand insight.
Last year, the program was held at three locations to make it more accessible: the library, Twiggs County Adult Learning Center, and a church where members shuttled kids who needed rides. The digital format presented new challenges—and opportunities for the Collaborative to reach the county’s most vulnerable children and families.
“This whole scenario is one big adjustment,” said Sampson. “As parents and grandparents, we learned a certain way. Nowadays it’s so different—and you don’t want to confuse your children if they’re already being groomed into doing it another way. You just have to make everybody as comfortable as you can so that people have room to grow.”
During hour-long Zoom sessions held Monday through Thursday, students separated into age-appropriate breakout rooms facilitated by Toney and Sampson. Students read aloud, participated in group discussions, exercised, and played games. They were also given writing prompts and encouraged to draw pictures inspired by their reading.
While 44 students registered, 30 families picked up the summer learning kits featuring books, a journal, colored pencils, and activity cube. Around half of those students participated in the daily Zooms. “I just focused on working with the students who were active and consistent,” said Toney. “Because if we can help just them, that’s still a big help for the county.”
Shakethia Height said her third grader Sabaskan and seventh grader A’laysia, who attended sessions while she was at work, benefitted from fun social interactions and structure provided by teachers who help students stay on track.
“When I see this kind of opportunity, I go for it, because you just don’t catch people taking time out of their day to help like this,” said Height. “I can print out worksheets all day and try to help my kids but being with a teacher is just different. It keeps them in the swing of school, and it motivates them more to want to read.”
“This past school year, I’ve seen so many parents who say I didn’t get these opportunities, but now these opportunities are here, so I’m going to encourage my children and get them the help they need,” said Toney. “And I tell the kids they can go far in life just knowing how to read—and read well. Everything else can be taken away from you, but education cannot. Reading cannot.”
While the Collaborative is working with partners to meet immediate needs during the pandemic like food, diapers, and back-to-school supplies, Toney is also focused on long-term goals like securing funding and resources to further literacy efforts and establish a recreation center, walking path, and afterschool programming for families.
“Family Connection brings everybody together at one table—different entities that specialize in different things—and pools all of those resources together to get out to our residents,” said Sampson. “It bridges the gap and lets everybody know, these are the cards I’m holding—let me see what you have. It brings to light all the resources that are available.”
Learn more about the county’s Little Free Library efforts during the pandemic.
GaFCP Communications Specialist