Ready Readers aims to turn the page on poverty and illiteracy

By Ellie Grossman Cohen, Special to the Jewish Light

If the pandemic has shined a light on anything, it is the disparity of resources available to poor communities, especially when it comes to education. Poverty and illiteracy go hand-in-hand, and Ready Readers was founded in 1997 to break that cycle.

Since then, Ready Readers has trained and supervised 550 volunteers who read weekly to more than 10,000 preschool-age children from low-income communities who attend 179 early childhood centers in the St. Louis area. Plus, they have distributed 576,500 shiny new books to foster reading at home.

Cindy Heymann, 56, who retired after 27 years teaching children from birth through age 7 in the Rockwood and Parkway School Districts, is one of those volunteers who embraces these kids as her own. She and her husband Dan, 57, a now part-time real estate investor, read high quality children’s literature every week to preschoolers at Southside Early Childhood Center –and they have as much as fun as the preschoolers. The couple belongs to Congregation Shaare Emeth.

“During a time when their worlds have been turned upside down, we are familiar faces who engage with them in a consistent and predictable format. Even though we are seeing them virtually, we want them to know they can depend on us to be there every week with enjoyable books, lively songs, and lots of love. We may not be able to see their smiles behind the masks, but their enthusiasm tells us they are excited about our activities,” said Cindy Heymann, who after retirement  created her own curriculum, Mindful Preschoolers, a series of breathing and listening techniques that she incorporates into her reading sessions.

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Her mantra: “Let’s get our mindful bodies ready. Sit up straight and tall like a mountain, put your fist on your bellybutton, and we will count down from 3, 2, 1… zzziiiiip up our mindful bodies,” she instructs, then strikes a chime to signal them to focus and be in the moment.

“We chat, we laugh, we exchange high-fives and hugs. We also use more props, puppets and visual aids to maintain their interest,” she added. “We know that everyone loves to hear their own name and we found that incorporating their names into our songs is fun way to keep them involved. We are keeping our fingers crossed we will be back in the classrooms in August. We are looking forward to our weekly dose of 60 hugs.”

Being passionate about early childhood literacy also drives Marilyn Ratkin, 77, a former elementary school teacher and community activist, to volunteer with Ready Readers. Like Cindy Heymann, she recruited her husband Gary to be a reader and positive male role model to the students.

“My 3 to 5-year-olds attend class, some virtual and some in-person, which gives me a ‘birds-eye’ view of teacher challenges day in and day out,” said Ratkin, who has served on the board for many years and also is a member of Shaare Emeth.  “There are more distractions at home in front of a screen for these little people. Yet Ready Readers has not missed a beat.  Children ‘learn to read so that they can read to learn,’ and Ready Readers has done an amazing job in continuing to make this happen despite COVID.”

The success of early literacy programs like Ready Readers is crucial. Considering by age 3 roughly 85% of the brain’s core structure is formed and wired for thinking and learning, timing is everything.

“Literacy is life-changing. When kids are reading at grade level by the third grade, they have better outcomes for life – including higher rates of graduation, higher rates of employment, better paying jobs, and lower rates of involvement in the criminal justice system,” said Angela Sears Spittal, executive director of Ready Readers. “We bring it a step earlier – making sure kids are ready to learn to read when they get to kindergarten because that has a positive effect on third grade reading scores. We make reading and story time fun for kids – so they want to read and they are excited about story time. We believe by focusing on literacy in early childhood we can change lives and change our community.”

To become a volunteer, visit

For more information on Mindful Preschoolers, go to