Literacy effort goes digital

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By Jeremy Johnson

WELD COUNTY — A Fort Collins-based company spreading the good word(s) for nearly 25 years has gone digital in their quest for increased literacy in children.


Unite for Literacy, described by CEO Mike McGuffee as “for profit, for social good,” believes many of Colorado’s kids are thirsty for knowledge but live in veritable “book deserts” that leave them less chance for academic success. Because they don’t have access to enough reading materials, McGuffee said an estimated 67 percent of children living in Weld County are at risk of not reaching high school, or not graduating if they do.

“More than six out of 10 homes in Weld County contain fewer than 100 books, which defines book scarcity,” McGuffee explained. “Book scarcity and a lack of regular reading habits are the two root causes of illiteracy, which is connected to a host of societal issues like poverty, substance abuse and crime.”

McGuffee said the 2010 Social Stratification and Mobility study, conducted in 27 countries over a 20-year period and available through United for Literacy’s website (www.uniteforliteracy.com), emphasizes the impact that availability to books has on a child’s academic success.

“There is a lot of early literacy research available showing books in the home as a primary success factor in growing lifelong, successful readers,” McGuffee said.

Maps documenting research show the nationwide severity of “book scarcity,” a term defined as a home containing fewer than 100 books. Of the 50 states, only New Hampshire has more than 100 books in more than 40 percent of homes. In Mississippi, that percentage drops to 10 percent or less. Meanwhile, Colorado, like many mid- and northwest states, falls somewhere in the middle: between 31 and 40 percent of Centennial state families have more than 100 books in their homes.

Unite for Literacy doesn’t feel the middle is good enough for the state, the nation or the world. So they turned to the Internet to do something about it.

“We really want people in Weld County and across Colorado to be aware of the widespread problem of book scarcity and its effect on children’s school success,” McGuffee said.


Making digital
vision a reality

For a quarter of a century, the group has combated illiteracy by getting more than 7 million books into the hands of children around the globe, McGuffee said.

“But a few years ago, it became apparent that we needed to move to mobile technology to make our vision … a reality,” he added.

Now, Unite for Literacy combats lack of literary ingress by offering online access to more than 100 of what they call “culturally relevant digital picture books,” narrated in 18 different languages “for free, forever.”

To do this, the group solicits local business and individual sponsors for each book they carry. Currently, only 20 books are “sponsored,” but the group’s goal is to get 1,280 books backed by a sponsor and then made available to all 64 counties in Colorado – and beyond. 

As McGuffee pointed out, that’s the beauty of the online campaign: It has no boundaries. Add to that the fact that the books can be translated into multiple tongues, and the reach of United for Literacy quickly expands beyond Colorado to the farthest reaches of the world.

“This is a local, national and global digital library solution,” he said. “Our overall goal is to eradicate book scarcity globally, but we are trying to stay focused in our back yard first and show Colorado as a state of ‘picture book abundance.’”


Eradicating illiteracy, book by book

Increased “book abundance” requires help, McGuffee said. After all, maintaining a website, paying for licensing and titles and marketing the company’s “free” product aren’t exactly free. And McGuffee said that’s where private, civic and public sponsors come in.

“Anyone, anywhere, from any device can go to our website and start reading books for free, but this is where sponsors play such a key role,” he said. “When businesses sponsor a book from the library and share it through their own marketing efforts, they are creating awareness of, and access to, our free digital library. 

“And with our new e-commerce sponsorship tool, we are making it easier than ever for businesses to sponsor and share books,” he added. “Unite for Literacy has a very simple, cost-effective solution … that gives all industry sectors, large and small, the chance to participate in and impact literacy in their community.”

When a business sponsors a book through Unite for Literacy, they are also able to gauge results, McGuffee said. 

“Our technology platform then collects basic geographic IP address information from where the reader is accessing the book and then we report back to our sponsors the areas that are experiencing an abundance of books … because of their efforts,” he added.

This ability to see tangible community change is what makes sponsorship so rewarding, said Matthew Hoeven, owner of Chipper’s Lanes, with five northern Colorado locations.

“Chipper’s Lanes values community above all else,” Hoeven said. “Unite for Literacy’s turnkey book sponsorship program cuts to the core of what we all should value in terms of supporting our community and every child’s effort to live fuller lives.”

McGuffee hopes it is sponsors such as Hoeven who will help Unite for Literacy reach their goal of adding 50 new titles and 10 new languages of narration by mid-2015. In the meantime, McGuffee said it’s important to focus on the task at hand.

“Unite for Literacy presents a wonderful opportunity for companies to invest in a solution that will make a significant, measurable impact on the social needs within Weld County communities,” McGuffee said.


Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or jjohnson@metrowestnewspapers.com.