Ready Readers. Healing the St. Louis Community: One Volunteer, One Child, One Teacher, One Family, One Book at a Time

What if all children enter kindergarten with a strong early literacy foundation so that they become successful, strong readers?

Photo of Lisa Greening

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

In 1997, Pat Simons, Founder, started Ready Readers, a St. Louis nonprofit organization to help prevent rather than remediate illiteracy. Now, with 540 volunteers who read to the same classroom of children every week at the same time, our children are not only entering kindergarten ready to read, but our volunteers form very strong, consistent, stable bonds with the children, teachers, centers, and family and the low-income community. We are solving the issues of illiteracy now.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)
  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)
  • Self-identify race, ethnicity, or origin

If you chose to self-identify your race, ethnicity, or origin, please share here: (the answer will not be public)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Missouri

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

St. Louis

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Missouri

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Saint Louis City and Saint Louis County

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Ready Readers instills a love of books, language, sense of story, vocabulary, and other essential early literacy skills for children from low-income communities in St. Louis during the preschool years, before formal education begins. We know that 90% of brain development happens before age 5. We start at the beginning when children learn language with a program that engages the community to spend time in low-income areas to solve the problem.

Ready Readers is an outcome-based solution to ensure children grow up with a strong sense of self, purpose and belonging by tackling the issues of poverty by providing a strong foundation in early literacy for children, ages 2-5, in low-income communities  to set the stage for educational success while engaging the community members to part be part of the solution and giving free, new, high-quality children’s books,  literacy-based fieldtrips, professional development workshops, and resources to the early childhood classroom.

In a ground breaking study this year by Washington University and Focus St. Louis, "For the Sake of All:  Improving the Health and Well-being of African Americans in St. Louis," their number one suggestion for our community is to invest in quality early childhood development for all children. And, in their For the Sake of All Action Guide, they conclude that the number one activity that a person can do as a volunteer to strengthen our community is to read for Ready Readers.

Ready Readers’ mission has stayed the same over the years, but our impact on early literacy for each child has increased.  Our mission is to inspire preschool-age children from low-income communities to become readers by reading aloud to them, increasing their exposure to quality books, and providing literacy-related experiences.

For the 2015-2016 school year, Ready Readers trained, placed, supervised and supported 542 volunteers who read weekly to 10,000 preschool-age children from low-income communities attending 180 early childhood centers in the St. Louis area.  Our program is unique.  The volunteer reads to the same classroom of children every week at the same time, creating strong bonds and relationships between the volunteer, the children, the teacher, the families and the center.  For the children, having the same, positive role model consistently in their lives for at least a year centered around a love of books and reading has created high, measurable outcomes for the children we serve.

Our volunteers are provided with a 90 minute training session at the Ready Readers office, on-site mentoring, cell phone access to staff members, and high-quality standards and curriculum shared on the Ready Readers website and Face Book page.  This year, we started the Ready Readers University, which includes workshops and smaller Readers’ café sessions available several times a month for our volunteers.  We also have a Mentoring Corps of 36 volunteers (primarily retired school teachers) who work with and support the volunteers during their read-aloud sessions in the classroom.

At the weekly read-aloud sessions, each volunteer reads aloud 2-3 books and teaches an emergent literacy activity to the same class of children, at the same time every week, allowing the children to associate a special person with the fun of reading.  In addition, Ready Readers gives each child seven new, personalized books annually with a “Notes for Home” section, designed for follow-up with the family. 

Six times a year and once in the summer, Ready Readers gives a high-quality, award-winning, personalized children’s book to each preschool-age child and their teacher in the program.  We have a large committee of early literacy experts, who choose seven titles, based on quality, vocabulary, diversity, and enjoyment by children.  We purchase 10,000 copies of each of these seven titles directly from the publisher, and the publisher imprints a personalization area, our logo, and a “Notes for Home” section inside each book.  On this special gift book day, our volunteers read aloud the book, surprise the children with their own personalized copy, and then reread the book, showing the children how to hold it, turn pages, and follow the story. The classroom teacher also receives a copy of the gift books with extension activities.  This past year, Ready Readers gave more than 65,000 new books to the children and the teachers in our program. 

Hundreds of teachers also participate in Ready Reader professional development workshops, based on using high-quality children's literature to teach emergent skills in the classroom.  All receive clock hour credits from the state of Missouri and Illinois for participating.   Ready Readers provides  six Saturday workshops a year at the St. Louis Community College, plus our workshops for the public schools, United4Children, and for the Missouri Workshop Calendar, sponsored by ChildCare Aware of Missouri.

More than 5,000 of our children annually attend a free literacy fieldtrip based on one of our gift books to the Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum, and this year we started a twice weekly free “Storytime Science with Ready Readers” program at the St. Louis Science Center.  We also piloted a “Book-A-Day” program for 4 classrooms that were identified.   We are expanding this pilot to 8 classrooms next year. We write a monthly column for the local newspaper with reviews of quality children's books centered around why reading aloud to young children is vital.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Each of our volunteers is unique, but they share one main story. By going every week to read to the same classroom of children, they become their second family. And, in St. Louis, especially after the riots in Ferguson (15 of our 180 centers are in Ferguson), our volunteers became the first voices to heal our community. Our volunteers go above and beyond.They make sure that their children have clean clothes, school supplies, and toys. They host game nights and family literacy events. They attend the preschool graduation ceremonies, take the classroom on fieldtrips, or bring extra special treats on special days. Sadly, several have gone to funerals of “their children.” One volunteer went on vacation with the teacher in their classroom.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

In addition to increasing the number of children that we serve every year, Ready Readers wants to better understand the impact of our program on early literacy in our community. Every year, we hire an outside evaluator from Washington University to test our Logic Model of out goals, inputs, outputs, and targeted measurable outcomes. The evaluator pre and post assesses a large sample of children at four different centers in their early literacy skills, as defined by the Missouri Early Learning Goals, and surveys all teachers and volunteer readers. Attached are our Logic Models and Outcomes. Based on our annual results, we revise our program, revise our Logic Model to reflect the change in activities and then set higher, targeted results, which are measured. In addition to strengthening our program, we would like to expand outside of St. Louis. We are unique in this country.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $500k - $1m

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Ready Readers receives our funding from local St. Louis foundations, corporations, and individuals. We host three large fundraisers a year. We do not receive government money, and we are not a member of a federated organization like the United Way. Strategically, last year, we created our first major giving campaign, Ready Readers Literacy Society. We are looking at income-generated funding, from selling workshops, books, or chapters.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Our program is unique. Unlike other early literacy programs, Ready Readers starts at the beginning of a child’s life, when they are learning language. Also, what is most unique about us is that our program is designed to engage our whole community to tackle the issues of early literacy. We build and support a strong St. Louis community of volunteers who invest their time, talent and treasure weekly to inspire preschool-age children from low-income communities to become readers.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

First, we are starting at the beginning of a child’s life, and better understanding the consequences of the “30 million word gap.” Secondly, through science, we now know language is acquired and the barriers, including toxic stress, to learn. We are shifting the conversation from “what is wrong with that child” to “what has happened to that child.” We are using age-appropriate language, play, mindfulness, etc. to help children. Thirdly, our community realizes that it is only as strong as those who have the least. St. Louis learned it the hard way. We are now ready to care for all.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Becca AbuRakia-Einhorn emailed us the information.

Program Design Clarity

Ready Readers trains, supports, mentors and provides resources for 500 volunteers a year. The volunteer Reader is "placed" in a classroom of children, ages 2-5, who attend an early childhood center where at least 70% of the children receive free & reduced lunch. The volunteer reads aloud high-quality children's literature weekly to the children, and then gives each child a new, personalized book every month, provided by Ready Readers. The teacher receives the same book for the classroom with activities, invitations to our teacher workshops, and other literacy opportunities.

Community Leadership

Ready Readers works with 179 early childhood centers in the St. Louis area and provide state-approved workshops and literacy resources for the 1,200 teachers in the centers. Ready Readers is also actively involved in early childhood advocacy initiatives in Missouri via our leadership with the St. Louis Regional Early Childhood Council, the Missouri, the Missouri Children's Leadership Council, and ChildCare Aware of Eastern Missouri.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 1.5 -3
  • 3 - 5

Spread Strategies

Ready Readers is a very unique program in our country, empowering community members to create lasting relationships with children and teachers in low-income communities, centered around books. We have a custom database that "matches" our volunteers to centers, a clearly defined program process with measured outcomes, and strong relationships with publishers. In the next 3 years, we plan to provide chapters across the country.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Being able to read well is THE KEY for children to be able to thrive and to understand themselves, others, their community, and their world. Without the ability to read to learn, the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement will only continue.

Leadership Story

Lisa Greening, Ready Readers Executive Director, has been committed to education and literacy her entire life. As an undergraduate at John Hopkins University, she directed The Johns Hopkins Tutorial Project, bringing children from East Baltimore twice a week to the Hopkins campus to be mentored one-on-one with the same college student for a year. She received her M.A. in Teaching from Hopkins, and then worked/co-owned Left Bank Books, St. Louis' independent bookstore for 16 years. Seven years ago, she returned to work with children and literacy. St. Louis is her hometown.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Ready Readers is a Gold level participant with Guide Star Exchange, ranked an A+ organization by the BBB, and certified by the United Way as an accredited volunteer agency. We were a 2012-2014 Social Venture Partner with the St. Louis Regional Business Council.

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Ready Readers

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)

Lisa Greening


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