Photo by Marielle Solan
Last month, Hastings-on-Hudson resident Pam Allyn expected that one million people would read out loud to someone as part of World Read Aloud Day (WRAD), the annual event she created. Allyn, 48, is the founder and executive director of LitWorld (litworld.org), a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that brings literacy to disadvantaged children.
It’s the third time around for WRAD. “The first year,” she confides as we sit among the books at the Hastings-on-Hudson Library, “we thought maybe just our friends would do it, or New York would do it.” As it turned out, she says, “We got a shockingly big response,” with 40,000 participants. Last year, LitWorld topped that with a whopping 200,000. “I think we were in sixty countries,” Allyn says. “It was amazing!”
Word had gone out through social media, including Facebook and blogs, especially parenting blogs. Many people had already taken notice of LitWorld, in part because a New York Times article in April 2009 had described the connection it created between schools in Bronxville and Africa. “Last year, we had a twenty-four-hour ‘read-a-thon’ in Times Square. That was tremendous.” Clifford the Big Red Dog attended the event, courtesy of Scholastic, and then-Schools Chancellor Cathie Black came by to help get the word out, as did her successor, Dennis Walcott. It even attracted the attention of Good Morning America. This year, events took place at Books of Wonder bookstore in Manhattan, and online, including on Skype, with readings by authors. “Even if they’re just reading to their child before bed, we asked people to send us an email to say they did it,” Allyn says.
“I see literacy as the foundation for how people become strong,” she says. “I was doing a workshop in Rwanda, and it was supposed to be for fifteen girls. In about ten minutes, the entire village was there, wanting to be part of it.”
LitWorld, with its goal of achieving total global literacy, grew out of a gathering in Allyn’s living room about four years ago with “friends of Pam from different corners of her life,” according to founding board member Jeannie Blaustein. Allyn, she says, “has a very elegant, but simple, model—you read to kids and allow them to read and to write about their own lives in ways that are open and supportive and nurturing, then literacy will naturally come to them as a means of self-expression.”
Underlying all of Allyn’s work are master’s degrees in English and education. Her first job was teaching deaf children, and then she worked for a decade at Columbia University’s Teachers College, doing professional development for teachers in the area of literacy. She supplements her LitWorld salary with independent consulting work and the sales of the books she’s written for teachers and parents.
Her husband, Jim Allyn, is CEO of their related company, LitLife (litlifeinfo.com), of which Pam is executive director. The two were friends at Amherst College, parted after they graduated, then reunited in New York shortly thereafter. They fell in love, married in 1988, and now have two college-aged daughters. Jim works with teachers in this country, helping them improve their skills, and participates in LitWorld projects whenever possible. “I love to go on the trips,” he says. “It’s really interesting to see what she’s created. If I could, I’d go all the time.”
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“It’s great for the boys to see men who care about reading,” Pam says. “It’s not common for boys in school to see men as readers.” Not because they aren’t reading, but because they aren’t usually visible in the schools. The boys at The Children’s Village, a social service organization in Dobbs Ferry, have benefited from her skills for several years, and she feels they’ve gained even more because her husband has accompanied her there. “Children’s Village is where it all came together for me,” she says. “If the boys there could be completely inspired by reading, and they were struggling the most, the most disenfranchised, then this should be the right of every child.”
“Pam is amazing, simply amazing,” declares Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of Children’s Village. “It’s not unusual for people to feel exhausted and helpless when they meet a seventeen-year-old who cannot read. Not Pam. She loves those challenges. She can connect with a nineteen-year-old boy who spent a year at Rikers Island as easily as she connects with a six-year-old girl in the slums of Kibera, Kenya.”
Allyn alone, he says, realized that it’s cool to read to teenagers. “That was not something we thought was useful, and she very quickly showed us. I’ve gone from seeing boys walk with nothing in their hands but a basketball to seeing dozens of boys walking to school with books that were hand-picked by Pam and her team.”
The photos of her workshops in Africa show the faces of children “who are in very dire situations,” Allyn says. “But when you look at the pictures, you don’t see that. I see happiness, hope, joy, optimism, and those are the feelings I have—that there’ll be nothing we can’t overcome.” At the same time, however, “there’s a sense of urgency,” Allyn admits. “I’m in a race and I have to go back, or those girls you see in the picture, those same girls, won’t be there next time I come.”
LitWorld maintains LitClubs in the U.S., the Philippines, Iraq, Ghana, Kenya, and Rwanda. Because of early marriage and domestic responsibilities, Allyn says, two-thirds of people trapped in illiteracy are women and girls. She is determined to put an end to that and isn’t about to listen to anyone who says she can’t.