Five years ago, executives at an insurance company were surprised — and disturbed — to find out from one of their employees that some Hispanic parents didn’t read to their children at home because of poor English skills. So the company, which services urban areas with a high number of Spanish speakers, decided to refocus its educational outreach.
“We wanted our efforts to continue being educational, but we also wanted to put tools in the hands of the parents in both languages,” recalled Greg Fasking, vice president for consumer marketing at Infinity Property and Casualty Corp.
Thus, Read Conmigo, a free pre-kindergarten through fifth grade bilingual literacy program, was born. The idea was to continue promoting education, as the company had been doing, but in a targeted way: putting bilingual storybooks and other bilingual materials in the hands of parents who could either order books or download them from a website.
Read Conmigo is now in in 10 cities, including Miami, and has distributed more than one million free books to families and schools nationwide. It receives support from about 11,000 educators.
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In addition to the storybooks, the program also provides free bilingual apps and online resources for parents to read with their children. More than 108,000 families have signed up for the program, and Read Conmigo has participated in more than 420 community events. In addition, Infinity has donated more than $11.3 million in scholarships.
In May, for Bilingual Literacy Month, Birmingham-based Infinity Insurance, along with its local partners including the Miami Marlins and The Children’s Trust, has been hosting a series of events to promote education in two languages. On Tuesday outfielder Marcell Ozuna read Casey at Bat in both English and Spanish to a fourth-grade class at Kensington Park Elementary. On Wednesday, along with The Children’s Trust Reading Circle, it helped host story time and a free bilingual book giveaway at the Miami Shores Library. A second story time is scheduled for May 21 at Books and Books in Coral Gables. These last two events are part of the Trust’s “Read to Learn Books for Free Book Drive.”
Earlier this month Read Conmigo also premiered a new documentary, Read Conmigo: A Journey to Bilingual America at the historic Tower Theater in Little Havana.
Though Miami is the only city in Florida currently participating in Read Conmigo, Infinity has plans to add Tampa and Orlando to its outreach program by 2017. (Other Read Conmigo cities are in California, Texas and Arizona.) It makes business sense to target cities with a high concentration of Hispanics, said Glen Godwin, senior vice president of business development, because many of its insurance clients are Latino. But the outreach is beneficial in other ways, too.
“We, as many other corporations, do not have the staff with the adequate skills set,” he added. “Language is part of that skill set, and promoting literacy in two languages fuels both our company’s compassion and commitment.”
Various studies have shown that speaking two languages can help an employee earn more and do better in the job market. UCLA professor Patricia Gandara recently co-wrote a book that brings together the importance of fluency in two (or three or four) languages in a globalized economy. Bilingualism also may help delay or prevent dementia.
But for the Read Conmigo partners, the program is not so much about landing a good job in some far-off future but about providing reading help to bridge the gap between families and their access to bilingual literacy resources. The idea is to engage parents in home-based education, encourage them to read at home and to foster in kids a love for reading in both languages.
Those goals coincide with the Miami Marlins’ own community efforts. Through its foundation, the baseball team has focused its educational efforts at seven schools near its Little Havana stadium. Kensington Park is one of them. When Read Conmigo executives approached the Marlins three years ago, “it was a natural fit for us to join their efforts because their goals were very much like ours,” said Alan Alvarez, director of the Marlins Foundation.
“This program does several things that we support,” Alvarez added. “It encourages bilingual literacy, it stresses the importance of reading and it also gives parents a way to participate in their children’s education.”
In addition to this month’s school and library giveaways, the Read Conmigo campaign sponsors a yearly writing contest aimed at authors of children’s books. The winner of a bilingual children’s story takes home $1,000. The book is published and given free to more than 70,000 kids through the program’s website.
This year the campaign also is inaugurating its Bilingual Educator of the Year Award, a social media driven contest that celebrates outstanding bilingual educators. First- and second-place winners will be selected on the number of votes they receive on the Read Conmigo Facebook page through May 30. Third place will be selected by a panel of judges.
For more information about the Read Conmigo program and how to sign up, visit www.readconmigo.org