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