Benita Somerfield, Lifelong Literacy Advocate

National Board Member with Rich History in Literacy Advocacy Shares Story

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We were thrilled when Benita Somerfield, Founding Executive Director of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, and member of the Reach Out and Read National Board of Directors agreed to speak with us about the importance of early childhood literacy and what she sees as the future of the important intervention. 

 

Literacy has been a part of Ms. Somerfield's life and mission for a long time. As a literacy major, she fell in love with someone who lived in Paris, so she moved there with the intent of becoming a star reporter for The International Tribune. But, she started teaching English and got a job in publishing. 

 

During the Johnson administration, the President initiated a "war on poverty" and began recruiting anyone with experience teaching adults. She got a job at Riker's Island, a New York jail, teaching inmates to read better and she was hooked. She was thrilled to see the men she was working with respond to a sonnet. "It confirmed what literature could do," Ms. Somerfield said.


Her work continued in various communities across New York City from corporations to correctional facilities. Then, Cambridge Book Company contacted her about writing books for this population. She left the field in 1975 and went into book publishing in adult literacy and general trade.


She became Sports Book editor and eventually became president of the company, which was part of Simon and Schuster, when she was approached by the Reagan administration Department of Education to be a special advisor in adult literacy. It was at this time she met Second Lady Barbara Bush, who had already, at this point, made literacy her cause.


It was also around this time that a friend introduced Ms. Somerfield to Barry Zuckerman, ROR co-founder who first launched Reach Out and Read in Boston.


 "It was the best thing I'd seen," Ms. Somerfield recounts.

 

Barbara Bush invited Ms. Somerfield to be Executive Director of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and for 23 years they worked together funding thousands of literacy programs, including Reach Out and Read, across the country.


In 2015, Ms. Somerfield came back to the board of Reach Out and Read.


"This is the most effective intervention I've run into...an evidence-based program that has grown like crazy."


Ms. Somerfield hit the ground running securing a grant from the Carnegie Corporate to facilitate our recent organizational meeting.


"I have to do everything I can to make sure this program succeeds. When you have a program that is so sound, and it works...you have to nourish it."


"I have great admiration for the work that Amy and the Georgia team are doing. They've certainly created a model Reach Out and Read region!" she said.


"Regional affiliates like Georgia are critical," she continued, "this is where the work is happening...the partnership between the national organization and the programs is so important. We can supply technology, best practices, run meetings, develop a higher profile in advocacy to free up the regions to do what they need to do."

 

Looking to the future, Ms. Somerfield hopes that every single place where a nurse practitioner or a doctor is meeting babies for the first time, that Reach Out and Read is there.

 

"We know it makes an enormous difference, starting school ready to read. The program does that and it helps families start a library at home. Anecdotal research that shows that reading to your child does a wonderful thing for the relationship. We should be everywhere. It's an elegant simple model that works."


Contact Reach Out and Read
Reach Out and Read National Center
89 South St, Suite 201
Boston, MA 02111