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Turning the tide on poverty in Hertford County

In Hertford County, public school students aren’t lugging heavy book bags home. Though literacy is a problem there, the county schools don’t have enough textbooks to go around, so students share books during the school day, rather than taking them home.

But an anti-poverty effort of N.C. Cooperative Extension in Hertford County is improving young people’s access to books. In April, Extension celebrated nearly a year’s work through the program Turning the Tide on Poverty, which included book donations to youth programs.

Turning the Tide on Poverty began in North Carolina when several Cooperative Extension professionals participated in a three-day training program last summer. The Southern Rural Development Center trained facilitators to help communities identify solutions and execute programs to fight poverty.

Robin Roper, family and consumer sciences Extension specialist and one of the trained facilitators, looked at the economic demographics of Hertford County in northeast North Carolina and saw potential for Turning the Tide there. This was a new program for Extension, and Roper knew that Hertford County Extension Director Crystal Smith would be the perfect person to facilitate the program there.

On April 23, Extension held its “Hertford County Home Grown” event to celebrate book donations through Read, Lead, Succeed, the program that grew out of Turning the Tide conversations. During the event, guests sampled a variety of local food products provided by Hertford food producers.

“Parents reading to kids, and kids having access to books outside school is important to literacy,” Roper said. “In homes of poverty, books are a luxury.”

The evening was bittersweet however, as the community also said farewell to Crystal Smith, who had moved to Cooperative Extension’s Warren County center to be closer to her home.

Turning the Tide started last summer as Cooperative Extension held community meetings in Hertford County. About 20 people attended the first meeting at Roanoke Chowan Community College.

“They recognized that poverty was huge in Hertford County,” Smith said.

The group came together during a series of meetings, facilitated by Cooperative Extension staff, and decided that education was the key to fighting poverty in their county. Specifically, they wanted to work on literacy and expanding children’s access to books.

“This is a democratic process, to determine what works in the community and what needs to happen to ‘turn the tide’ in that community,” said Susan Jakes, community development specialist with N.C. Cooperative Extension at N.C. State University.

Access to books is a problem in Hertford County, Smith said. In public schools, textbooks are shared, so most students can’t take books home. There is a county library, but not everyone in Hertford has access to transportation to visit the library regularly.

“Students are expected to read at home. A book list exists, but there aren’t enough copies to go around,” Smith said.

Hertford County Schools administrators were thrilled that education, particularly literacy, was identified as a means for fighting poverty, Smith said. “The superintendent has been involved, as well as people from local churches,” she said. “I have to remind them [the community group] to start with one thing!”

Over the year, the literacy effort came to be known as Read, Lead, Succeed. Community groups contributed to the literacy program and identified groups to receive the books. At the April celebration, several local groups supporting county youth received books for their members.

The groups that received books were

  • Princess Ministry of First Baptist Church, Murfreesboro, a mentoring program for high school girls
  • Two mentoring programs of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.,  Ahoskie Chapter Delta GEMS and Delta Academy, also for girls
  • Most Men Mentoring Inc., a mentoring program for young men
  • Hertford County High School Emergent Readers • New Ahoskie Baptist Church After-school Academy.

In addition, a number of books from the Hertford Schools’ reading list were distributed to those attending Hertford County Home Grown. Participants were encouraged to pick up a book for themselves or to give to a friend in the community.

Read, Lead, Succeed is already looking toward its second phase. The Read, Lead, Succeed Community Group has raised more than $3,500 in an enhancement fund of N.C. Cooperative Extension Service Foundation that will be used to support future literacy projects.

Two Hertford County Extension professionals – Stephanie Parker-Helmkamp, family and consumer sciences agent, and Wendy Drake Burgess, agriculture agent – have agreed to serve as advisers for phase II of Read, Lead, Succeed. Phase II will continue the goal of improving literacy in Hertford County by purchasing books and resources to support new curriculum course study, providing parent involvement in literacy and continuing the literacy collaboration with Hertford County Schools.

— Natalie Hampton

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