Reading Is Fundamental Program Turns 40 The organization called Reading is Fundamental celebrates its 40th anniversary. The group, founded in Washington, D.C. by a former schoolteacher, encourages kids to read by giving them books, especially kids who would not have books of their own otherwise.
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Reading Is Fundamental Program Turns 40

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Reading Is Fundamental Program Turns 40

Reading Is Fundamental Program Turns 40

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Michel Martin in Washington.

And there is a big party here in Washington, D.C. tonight. It's being held in a beautiful hall with lovely food, and no doubt, interesting guests. And with all due respect there's nothing unusual about that in this city. But what is unusual is the purpose of this party. It is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of an organization called Reading is Fundamental. I bet you've heard of it.

The purpose of the group couldn't be more simple or more important - to encourage kids to read by giving them books, especially kids who would not have books of their own, otherwise. It was founded here in Washington by former teacher Margaret McNamara.

In 1966 she brought a bag of used books to four boys whom she was tutoring. And when she told the children they could each pick a book to keep, she realized that these boys and many of their classmates had never actually owned a book. So she and a group of volunteers got together, and that November, launched Reading is Fundamental, a program to distribute books and motivate kids to read.

We're going to talk with a woman who knew Margaret McNamara very well, but we'd also like to hear from you. If you've ever received books through Reading is Fundamental or participated in any of their programs, we'd like to hear from you. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255 or 800-989-TALK. Or e-mail us at

And joining me now in Studio 3A is the daughter of founder Margaret McNamara, Margaret McNamara Pastor. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MARGARET MCNAMARA PASTOR (Daughter of Reading is Fundamental Founder): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: You know, it isn't everybody who can come up with an organization just because they had a good idea, and she pulled it together in a surprisingly short time. Your mother must've been very persuasive.

Ms. PASTOR: She was very persuasive, and she was very committed, and she was very persistent. My mother loved children. She loved life. She had tutored, off and on - children in reading - for many years, and when she got to Washington, she continued that interest and worked in the D.C. schools.

And as you noted, when she asked her students if they had books at home, she found out that they paused - one little boy in particular - and said, I don't think so. And after reflecting a moment, she said, well, what do you mean by that? And he said, well, you know, my mom sometimes goes to a yellow book and then she makes calls. But that's the only book - I think that's a book - that we have in our home. And that really mobilized mom. I mean it wasn't just that.

But she went home and put a bunch of her kids' books in the back of her car and drove down and distributed some books. And the more she thought about it and the number of children who did not have - never owned a book, really other than school hardly saw a book - she thought, we really need to get books into these kids' hands. It would be a powerful motivator. It would be exciting for them to be able to own a book and to choose their own books.

And so without motivation she just started out, talking… She thought, well, maybe I ought to go talk to some publishers and see if I could get some books at discount, or possibly free, from book publishers. And she knew she had to get funding so she talked to foundations. And it grew from there.

MARTIN: I read where she - and it was just she and three volunteers initially. Were these just…

Ms. PASTOR: That's correct.

MARTIN: …friends of hers, other teachers?

Ms. PASTOR: They were friends, yeah. Friends and teachers, and she knew a lot of people in education, so she reached out to them. And there was a lot of learning along the way.

My mother really believed in volunteering. She really believed that one person could make a big difference. And so she was committed to trying to grow this organization. And what is amazing to me - I have been out of Washington for some time, but we came back after being in Atlanta for 17 years, and I found, suddenly, an organization that had rocketed my mother's dream into the 21st century.

MARTIN: I really want to talk about that in a minute, but first I want to bring in a caller. I want to talk to - is it Lynnet(ph)?

LYNNET (Caller): It's Lynnet.

MARTIN: Lynnet in Parkville, Maryland. Lynnet.

LYNNET: Yes, hi. I was just calling - I was actually listening on my car radio, and I remember as a child, I lived in Brooklyn, New York, and one of the librarians at the local library off of Flatbush Avenue introduced me to the RIF program.

MARTIN: Did you remember any of the books that you got?

LYNNET: Yes. Beverly Cleary. I was a really big fan of Ramona.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYNNET: The whole series, and actually the librarian also introduced me to a few mystery novels, like Nancy Drew, that were sort of my age group. And it was just really interesting, because I got free books and they were mine. I didn't have to share them with anyone else in my household, so that was kind of cool.

MARTIN: What did that mean to you, to have your own books?

LYNNET: Well, I had a single mom, and I was a latchkey kid. So I spent a lot of time in the library because I hated going home by myself. So it was great, because I would come home and share the new books with my mom. Like look, Mom, this is a new book that I got. And I believe we checked out three or four books, and on the fourth book we got a free book. I can't really remember, but I just remember being excited going home and showing my mom all my new books that I received.

MARTIN: Lynnet, that is wonderful. Thank you so much for calling.

LYNNET: Oh, not a problem. Tell your caller I really appreciate all the work that her mom's done, because I was able to start my first book collection at a young age. So tell her I said thank you.

MARTIN: You can tell yourself.

LYNNET: Oh, well, thank you.

Ms. PASTOR: You're most welcome, and you add to my collection of wonderful RIF stories because they are all out there. I have been amazed at how many people still have their RIF books, and they call themselves the RIF kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PASTOR: RIF has actually, in 40 years, distributed 300 million new books, and free books, to 25 million children. And I met one of these RIF kids in California when I went out to look at the California programs: Ms. Hernandez(ph). And she came up and introduced herself to me and first gave me that name. You know, that's the first time I heard RIF kid - I'm a RIF kid. And this woman had come from, you know, an impoverished family. She hadn't had books at home. She - after receiving her RIF books and moving through education, she became a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa. She went to Harvard and got a Ph.D. in education, and now she's back setting up RIF programs.

MARTIN: Oh that's great. Okay, Lynnet.

LYNNET: That's awesome.

MARTIN: Okay, thanks for calling.

LYNNET: Not a problem.

MARTIN: And let's go to Minneapolis, and is it Rama(ph)?

RAMA (Caller): Yes, hi.


RAMA: I'm a RIF kid. I'm 42 years old, and I'm an immigrant. I was born in India, and when I first moved to this country, I lived in Madison, Wisconsin with my parents, who were students, and they had to buy their own books for studying, but they really didn't have money for toys or books for us when we were children. And I distinctively remember one of my earliest memories is running out from the married-student-housing dorms in Madison and seeing a van that carried the books for RIF. And so I really - it just touches a deep place in my heart when I think about RIF, and you know, I come from an educated family, but we really just didn't have the money to have our own books. And it made a big different in my life to have that program there. And I have also pursued my Ph.D. and now am teaching in a school of education.

MARTIN: Oh, that's wonderful. Do you remember any favorite books, Rama?

RAMA: I don't remember. I still have a collection of books, though, that - they look - they're very old, and I'm not so sure, you know, whether they were the RIF books. But I learned about American culture through my books at that early age. I didn't know a word of English. Well, within a few months I didn't really know a word of my native tongue anymore. But I can't remember the books. I can just remember the scene and all the little kids running around the truck.

MARTIN: That's great.

RAMA: It was a van - does that seem - that seems like that's how they did it, right? There was a Reading is Fundamental…

Ms. PASTOR: Absolutely.

RAMA: They had the bus, and the - or the van - and they came, and they distributed the books, and…

Ms. PASTOR: You've got it. That's what Mom did. She got a bookmobile at the beginning, and she just went out herself from the books from just a few publishers then. Now there are actually 160 publishers who participate in this program, and it's in every state and every territory.

RAMA: Yeah, and I…

MARTIN: Did you ever go with her, Ms. Pastor? Did you ever go…?

Ms. PASTOR: No, because I wasn't at home. I was away, studying.


Ms. PASTOR: Unfortunately I did not.

MARTIN: Rama, thank you so much for calling.

RAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much for the…

MARTIN: And over the years, many - Rama talked about the van - and there were a number of images, strong images that people have of the RIF program, and one of them was all the celebrities who got involved in the program, helping to promote the ideals through public service announcements. Let's listen to an example.

(Soundbite of public service announcement)

Mr. EDWARD ASNER (Actor): Did you know that there are at least 23 million American adults who can't read a want ad?

Unidentified Child #1: Or a book?

Unidentified Child #2: Or a job application.

Unidentified Child #3: That's what we have RIF.

Mr. ASNER: RIF is Reading is Fundamental. It's a national, non-profit program that makes kids really want to read. Give a kid a book, and you'll give a kid a break.

MARTIN: That was actor Edward Asner, and he was one of a number of celebrities who did these kinds of announcements. Is it still - I don't want to say easy -but can you still get that kind of involvement today? There seem to be so many things competing for our attention now.

Ms. PASTOR: I think absolutely. I mean, I think there - and this is out of a growing number of people who are very committed, who realize that the solution for our global problems, for a lot of our national problems, is to empower people to live rich and fulfilling lives, through reading. I mean, they need to read in order to have access and to enjoy this global community.

MARTIN: Speaking of well-known people. Your father was Robert McNamara, former secretary of defense, a former president of the World Bank. With no disrespect to your mother, did his connections help the cause, or did they hurt, given that this was the ‘60s and, you know, he wasn't the most popular fellow.

Ms. PASTOR: Well, it was straddling the line. My mother was very much her own person, and I think the name may have helped her get a toe in the door, barely. But she did the work. And it was her enthusiasm and her commitment, and her persistence, and her enjoyment of people, of bringing people together and saying this is an exciting idea. We have to do it. It will empower our children. We will all live more successful lives.

MARTIN: Let's see if we can get one more caller. Let's go to Michelle(ph), another Michelle, in South Carolina. Michelle, what's your story?

MICHELLE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to share that I have greatly benefited from RIF books. I attended elementary school in the early ‘70s, and I attended a school that had a high free and reduced-lunch population, and so RIF books were great, because most parents could not afford to purchase them for their children. And that helped to nurture my love of books, and I am a true bibliophobe and proud of it. But I also now teach English, and work for a publishing company, and I plan to get my doctorate in education, and I really think that RIF books played a great role in that.

MARTIN: Well, thank you Michelle.

Ms. PASTOR: That's wonderful to hear, because you raise another issue, another thing that's happened to this program. Mom started with a book-distribution program for children, and the organization has taken that - that is still its center - but it has reached out to motivating and training parents and community workers, and volunteers of all sorts, and have their programs in public schools and libraries all over the nation.

MARTIN: Michelle, thank you so much. Michelle, thank you so much for calling. It's great to hear from you.

Very briefly, Mrs. Pastor, you know you - we're down to our last couple of seconds. What would your mother think? She started with a bag full of used books, and now she's got, you know, there's a Web site, a board of directors, national network. What would she think of how the organization has grown?

Ms. PASTOR: I think she would be enormously pleased. I think she would be amazed and proud, particularly of the volunteers - because every time she went out, traveling across the nation - the volunteers and the work that they were doing with children were one of the most important things that happened.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. Margaret McNamara Pastor, daughter of the founder of RIF, and herself a board member. She joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks and congratulations, and have a great time at the party.

Ms. PASTOR: Thank you.

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