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TCU Early Learning Coordinator Natalie Eckstein selected 400 books to divide between the three TCU Early Childhood locations. The books were funded through the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s Early Literacy Grant Program. (Photo courtesy of Natalie Eckstein)

According to the Children’s Literacy Foundation, access to books, especially in the home, improves a child’s reading performance, ability to read for long periods of time and their attitude toward reading.

Thanks to a Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation effort called the Early Literacy Grant Program, 20,000 children’s books were distributed to nearly 50 Minnesota organizations this year. One of them is Tri-City United Public Schools.

“SMIF is a really great organization that really tries to provide communities and families with resources,” said TCU Early Learning Coordinator Natalie Eckstein, “…They have made it so easy to do family outreach with this [grant program].”

If not for the SMIF Early Literacy Grant, Eckstein said books would be a cost for Early Childhood. Otherwise, she would rely on business and community donations to fund books.

TCU Early Childhood has received the Early Literacy Grant in the past, but this year the funding allowed Eckstein to purchase a record 400 books for the program. That’s twice as many as last year.

According to Eckstein, these books will be available at TCU Early Childhood screenings at all three locations in the district, distributed in book bins around the TCU communities and given as needed to parents and their families. TCU Early Childhood also partnered with the Le Center WIC (Women, Infant and Children) Clinic to make the books available to clients. Last year, Early Childhood restocked a book basket at the clinic on a weekly basis.

Of the 400 books she selected, Eckstein is most excited about the books that teach self-help skills, cover social situations and provide resources for parents to read to children who have anxiety. Some of the books illustrate difficult family situations or focus on giving children confidence. A portion of the books are also bilingual, so parents who speak both English and Spanish can read to their children.

Eckstein collected books from an Owatonna warehouse that SMIF uses for the Early Literacy Grant Program. Capstone and ABDO, Mankato-based publishing companies, supply a wide variety of titles for infants to 7-year-olds. Rae Jean Hansen, vice president of Early Childhood at SMIF, compares the setting to a book fair where about 10 volunteers and staff members help guide clients to the books they want.

“It’s really fun because it’s kind of like Christmas to them,” said Hansen, “…and it’s exciting for us to see their response, too.”

At the end of each year, Hansen receives reports from the organizations to learn how the grant funding impacted children. From these reports, she’s learned that some children didn’t know how to open a book or turn the pages from right to left until they received books from the program.

“It’s always heartbreaking to know they haven’t been exposed to [books previously],” said Hansen. “Just having these books to get out to the families and kiddos is really exciting to see.”

Reporter Misty Schwab can be reached at 507-333-3135. Follow her on Twitter @APGmisty.

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