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Gift of reading helps Virginia 4-Hers during the pandemic

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4-H is all about developing young people who are empowered, confident, hard-working, determined, responsible and compassionate. To cultivate these skills, it takes community effort and help from others. For example, the Molina Foundation is making reading a reality for youth across the commonwealth with a donation of $1.2 million worth of books to Virginia 4-Hers, some of who have never owned a book before.

“It was like Christmas to see the joy on the kids’ faces when they received their book and learned it was for them to keep,” said Kelly Chavis, Appomattox Primary School librarian.

The foundation, focused on reducing disparities in education and health across the nation, saw the immense value of Virginia 4-H’s efforts in helping young people learn leadership, citizenship, and a vast array of life skills.

Virginia 4-H and The Molina Foundation began their partnership in 2017, when Ed Jones, director of Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Martha Molina Bernadett, president and founder of The Molina Foundation, served on the National 4-H Council together.

“Both Virginia Cooperative Extension and 4-H come in when you’re needed most,” Bernadett said. “Virginia 4-H is always there listening to the communities, listening to the kids and families, to what they need and then providing it. Virginia 4-H has been a wonderful partner and we look forward to partnering for years to come.”

To date, The Molina Foundation has contributed nearly $2 million in books. The $1.2 million is the largest non-cash gift in Virginia 4-H’s history.

“We at The Molina Foundation care about increasing access to books and other educational resources for our community,” said Jennifer Chappell, director of operations at The Molina Foundation. “We’re so impressed with Virginia 4-H’s commitment to improving the lives of children through efforts related to educational attainment, healthy living, and providing opportunities to grow life skills, confidence, and compassion through experiences.”

The gift of reading from The Molina Foundation came at an important time when many families faced hardships of socialization, learning, and reading during a global pandemic.

In true learning-by-doing fashion, the book donations to Virginia 4-H spurred a classic activity with COVID-safe protocols — virtual book clubs. After receiving books from the gift, youth across the commonwealth took to Zoom to hold book club meetings.

“The Southwest Virginia 4-H Book Club Challenge enabled youth to read at their own pace and encouraged youth to reflect on each book,” said Kasey Fioramonti, an associate Extension agent in Gate City. “Kids were challenged to complete a set number of books to prepare for a virtual competition with questions from each of the reading selections. This is a fun way for youth to interact and educationally engage with the material.”

The impact of the gift was seen immediately.

“I have tried many times to get Lily to read, but she has never enjoyed it. I don’t know what it is about these books, but she cannot put them down,” said Lindsey Strohofer, a parent of a 4-Her.

Elsewhere in Virginia, The Molina Foundation’s gift allowed Stafford 4-H to make new community connections and strengthen existing partnerships. Approximately 700 books were provided to preschool, elementary, and middle school students across the county. Many educators were noticing a decrease in student’s reading level and skills, which was greatly impacted by virtual schooling due to COVID-19.  

Each group that received books immediately thought of ways to use the books to bridge the school-to-home divide and encourage independent reading.

“We found that 4-H is all about access,” Chappell said. “During one of our first conversations, the Virginia 4-H team asked if the foundation could expand our delivery plan from one to several drop sites to reach more children and families in remote areas of Virginia. This openness to customizing distribution strategies has been key in helping us develop new ideas about how we can expand our reach to serve children in any region nationwide.”

It is imperative to have access to the written word and together, Virginia 4-H, The Molina Foundation, and community members are working together to change the lives of youth in Virginia.

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