A Story of Impact: Early Education and Literacy in Cook County

by Zoe Myers and Nyisha Key

When 4-year-old Briella recently visited the Cook County Library, she was bouncing with enthusiasm and curiosity—so many colorful exhibits and exciting storybooks and Nyisha Key, the library manager, waiting at the door to welcome her inside. The COVID-19 pandemic kept many of the library’s youngest patrons away for over a year, but Briella was one of the first to return, along with her mom, Sarah McRae, and her younger sister Shelby.

In what felt like a homecoming, Briella renewed her library card and enrolled in the Summer Reading Program. Her younger sister followed her lead by getting her first library card, enrolling in the Summer Reading Program and 1,000 Books Before kindergarten, and registering for the Cook County School’s Baby Hornet Program. According to Briella’s mother, little sister Shelby has developed a love for reading and learning from big sister Briella. The sisters read and learn together while working on writing, spelling, arts and crafts, and even playing.

In early 2019, Cook County Schools kicked off the Baby Hornets program and Briella, then 2 years old, was one of the first children to enroll. Spearheaded by School Superintendent Tim Dixon with a team of Cook County Family Connection Collaborative partners, the Baby Hornets was established to engage families with young children birth to 4 in the Pre-K pathway. Baby Hornets receive educational resources and storybooks, participate in fun-filled family events, and make connections with community partners that provide educational, health, and social services. During her first Baby Hornets family event, Briella met Key, who invited her to visit and tour the public library. And on a most exciting day for a 2-year-old, Briella became a Baby Hornet and an official card-carrying patron of Cook Public Library.

Briella was so excited during that first library visit that Key captured the moment in a photograph and shared it with the Collaborative. That priceless photo reflected the childhood excitement of learning, and we in turn shared it with our state partners at Healthcare Georgia Foundation who featured Briella’s photo in a literacy article in their statewide Catalyst Magazine.

Seeing Briella featured in statewide media was an inspiring experience for her parents who were proud of her early education fame.

“It inspired me and her dad to take even more action and extra steps to help Briella grow into a strong reader and scholar,” said her mom, Sarah. “We became more intentional about supporting her journey to graduating in the top of her class one day and being the best that she can be as a student.”

When Cook County Family Connection hosted a Loblolly Art & Reading Celebration in Fall 2019, Briella participated in week-long learning activities at Candy Cane’s Learning Center. She was one of hundreds of young learners across the county who read and celebrated the storybook Forever Loblolly by creating various forms of artwork, learning to make paper, and even planting pine tree seedlings.

Briella’s mom recounted the experience with a smile. “We had a great time celebrating the loblolly pine tree through reading and creating art together,” she said. “Briella was so excited for her dad to help her plant the little pine tree she received during that event.”

This year marks a milestone for Briella as she became a student in the Pre-K program at Cook Primary School. She prepared and waited for this time, and said she was excited to see friends, learn lots of new things, and read books. Her parents have invested time and energy in making sure that Briella was well-prepared for Pre-K by actively engaging in the Baby Hornets program, Cook Public Library programs and services, and community literacy events. Inspired by her own childhood visits to the public library and her love for reading, Briella’s mom has worked to instill that same love and appreciation for the library and reading in her young daughters. And those efforts have made a difference. As a result of her parents investing in her early learning, Briella has begun reading regularly, learning about money, and spelling and writing her name. Briella’s mom says she would encourage every parent to take advantage of any spare time to read to their children, talk about the stories they read, and make up and sing songs to help them learn basic things like spelling their names or the days of the week.

This story is the first in a series of Impact Stories by Cook County Family Connection, a Collaborative comprised of 60 partners working together to improve literacy and education, to improve food access, and to improve access to healthcare services. For questions, or to recommend a story for this series, contact Zoe Myers at zmyers@cookcountyfamilyconnection.org.