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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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StoryMakers Program Brings Books To Children In Rural, Tribal Communities
by Vince Devlin of the (Missoula, MT) Missoulian

PABLO - No amount of grass, berries, clover and honey can satisfy the rapidly expanding belly of the main character in "Bear Wants More," much to the delight of 4-year-old Kooper Page.

She grabbed the children's book as soon as it entered her home in St. Ignatius, and squirreled it away for herself.

Kooper and her little sister, 3-year-old Kason, do not lack for books. Reading is important in the Page household and the library is a regular stop. Their mother, Yolanda, an attorney with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, makes sure the girls are read to for 15 to 20 minutes each night.

The payoff will come down the road, according to Linda Clark.

"Connections in children's brains are built through their early experiences," Clark says. "When they're exposed to books very early in life, it jump-starts the spiral of competencies and skills, and makes a huge different when children enter school."

Clark directs a program for Hopa Mountain, a Bozeman nonprofit, called StoryMakers.

Its goal is to get books in the hands of parents and their preschool children in rural and tribal communities, and is the reason "Bear Wants More" is in the Page home.

Indeed, "Bear" is one of 10 books given to Kooper and Kason since StoryMakers began in 2007.

They also own - and have all but memorized - books such as "Owl Babies," "Five Little Ducks," "Eyes, Nose, Fingers and Toes" and "Guess How Much I Love You."

Like a well-read paperback, "Owl Babies" shows the effects of use - it was obviously around when Kason was teething - but the board books were built to withstand their young readers.

"They're sturdy, slobber-proof," says Jeanne Christopher, director of Early Childhood Services for the tribes. "You can chew on them, spill milk on them, and still use them."

Christopher and Malissa Morigeau, Health Services coordinator for Christopher's department, are one of several "citizen teams" StoryMakers use to get a new slew of books in the hands of an average of 6,000 children in Montana every six months.

The latest delivery includes one called "Let's Count," in response to requests that StoryMakers include math as a focus for children 5 years old and younger.

"It's got snappy, lively rhymes," Clark says, "and little holes on each page that can be felt as someone counts them. You can add, subtract, count things that are alike, things that are different."

The latest deliveries came with bookmarks that offer tips to parents on how to get the most out of the reading material. For instance, Clark says, any picture book can be used to develop math skills, whether you count apples in a tree, sheep in a field or flowers in a garden - whatever is pictured.

The books, she says, help with "early math, early literacy, early language skills. You can use them for learning sounds, logic, colors, shapes, sizes and sorting."

Depending on how you look at it, the books can give children a leg up as they enter kindergarten, or put them on a level playing field with other kids who have had similar exposure to such material.

"But we never say we're serving children directly," Clark says. "We're supporting parents. It's parents who need the support, and parents who can make the difference."

Christopher agrees.

"Buying books for your children in today's economy, when people are struggling to keep the lights on, their houses warm, buy food ... this gives them the opportunity to have something they can share with their child," she says.

While the StoryMakers program is present on all seven Indian reservations in Montana, it is open to any parent of a child from birth to 5 in the 16 rural and tribal communities it serves (several of the communities are in counties with low populations on the Montana Hi-Line).

Likewise, there is no qualification based on income. The only necessity is a parent who wants his or her child to have the books.

StoryMakers uses community leaders, librarians, pediatricians, tribal colleges and tribal departments to get the word out. Here on the Flathead Reservation, there's a citizen team at Salish Kootenai College because, Clark says, many students at tribal colleges are parents of young children.

Christopher and Morigeau, meanwhile, target Head Start programs and child care centers on the reservation, and StoryMakers got a good response at the recent Baby Fair sponsored by CSKT's Early Childhood Services.

Four or five titles are selected every six months, purchased by the thousands through Hopa Mountain and given away. Most families will get one or two of the books, depending on the age of their child or children. Recently, the citizen teams have become more involved in the selection process.

"They've never had a book we have not liked," Morigeau says, "but they listen to us. We said maybe there was not enough math involved, and they're starting to address that, which is good, because early math skills lead to early literacy skills."

Clark says studies show the impact of the education or training a person receives after high school is minimal compared to the impact of what they learn before they reach kindergarten, and that children entering school can be as much as two years apart in terms of their skill levels.

Where StoryMakers is available, no parent has to leave their child behind.

"It's helped tremendously with their learning and remembering," says Yolanda Page of Kooper and Kason. "It's nice for kids whose parents can't afford to buy books. What I really like is the sense of belonging. When they check a book out of the library they really like, they have to give it back, but these books are theirs."

For more information on the StoryMakers program on the Flathead Indian Reservation, contact Jeanne Christopher or Malissa Morigeau at (406) 676-4509.


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