Throughout Massachusetts there are children’s service agencies, school administrators and teachers, librarians and nutritionists working to provide healthy snacks, lunches and even books to those families who might not have access to them when school is out. It is a wonderful summer secret that those professionals are so devoted to the children in their care that they work to provide services during the summer months – feeding bellies and thus fueling brains.
School lunch is essential to many children. In the state of Massachusetts there has been an increase in the enrollment rates for free and reduced lunch. According to the Kids Count data center, that need has increased from 36% of students in 2010 to 44% of students in 2014.
One of these programs is The REAL Program in Lynn, Mass run by Jan Plourde. REAL stands for Reading Educational Assistance Learning, and the organization provides much needed after school and summer programming for their community members. They also donate books to all kinds of readers using their REAL Mobile. On the grounds of the Congregation Ahabat Shalom Synagogue, an aggregation of educators and community volunteers from all over the globe meet in the morning to share their skills, knowledge and love of learning with The REAL Program participants. The program supports the whole family — while Jan’s young students enjoy a vast array of activities and eat healthy snacks, some of their parents meet in an ESL class.
Although Jan and I were both named as Mass Literacy champions in 2014, we have known each other since seventh grade band. Different paths lead us to a similar goal. We both understand that literacy competence is a key element to success for children and adults.
I am the author of the children’s picture book, The Pajamas of My Dreams, and Margie Florini, the book’s illustrator and I visited The REAL Program one summer morning. While we were there the campers studied rocks and painted them and started work on a raised garden bed. They chose from boxes and boxes of donated books to take home and keep. They settled in to listen to my book, participated in The Pajamas of My Dreams Rap and then created their own Dreams Pages in cut-paper collage.
As a children’s librarian I was inspired by pajama drives that I hosted for the Brighton children’s service agency Cradles to Crayons. The Pajamas of My Dreams highlights children going off to sleep and dreaming of their futures. However, it offers a subtle message that not all children have that luxury – that some children’s dreams are more immediate – they wish that they were not hungry or cold and could feel safe in the night.
For those families whose children enjoy sports, music and art camps, who have unlimited access to books and learning materials, who go to bed with full bellies because they are not dependent on school lunch to stave off hunger, organizations like The REAL Program might seem to be a well-kept secret. There are subtle ways to share the message that not all children enjoy the same privileges of summer. The Pajamas of My Dreams speaks to children with designer bedrooms who simply find it hard to comprehend the plight of children in need. And for children in need, and it shares the message that they are not alone.
Organizations like The REAL Program work to create a more even playing field for all children, while individual professionals responsible for the education and welfare of children are devoted to providing continuity around the elements of success to the children in their care all year long.