There’s a veritable enemy afoot in Billings. Known as the 30 million word gap, it fells troops wide and far every year in its zeal to oppress reading literacy. This year, however, begins the slow-but-steady march to victory. Forget the Knights of the Round Table – two new programs in the Billings community are leading the battalion.

Leslie Modrow, development director for the Billings Public Library Foundation, points out the importance of combating the deficit.

“The 30 million word gap is often a major reason why children fall behind in their first years of school – they missed the opportunity to hear 30 million words by the time they entered kindergarten,” Modrow said of the literacy phrase.

Word craze

Two grassroots reading programs still in their infancy are currently making big strides in the Billings community.

Wild Words Literacy confronts the issue head-on. Maddie Alpert is one of two AmeriCorps VISTA members responsible for running the program. Launched in January through The Housing Authority of Billings, she says it’s specifically designed to reach children ages 3-11 in public and Section 8 housing.

“It’s part of the Bringing School Home movement in which housing authorities across the country are recognizing their unique potential to bring educational programs to children,” she explained. “Because of our close relationships with our tenants and our connection with their housing, we are uniquely situated to reach families that might not be reached by other community programs.”

For qualifying children, Wild Words offers a variety of activities including drama and poetry workshops, arts-and-crafts afternoons and fun-filled one-on-one tutoring sessions. The program has also hosted additional community events such as book-based movie nights, reading-based board game days and Arbor Day activities.

Alpert says there’s no shortage of participation opportunities, even if someone doesn’t qualify for Wild Words’ tutoring program. Community events are open to families, and the organization warmly welcomes volunteers.

Making contributions count

The Billings Public Library Foundation has also started a new fundraising initiative, First Chapter Society. A dues-based membership program, First Chapter Society focuses on promoting early childhood literacy.

“We want to catch kids as fast as we can and educate parents to start reading to their children from the time they are weeks old,” Modrow said. “One way we accomplish this is by allocating the program’s funds toward promoting community outreach as well as purchasing books that parents and caregivers can read to their kids.”

Future plans for the society include promoting reading and comprehension skills for seniors as well as technological literacy, especially with computers and the social media realm.

The library staff and volunteers work tirelessly to take literacy programs above and beyond expectation. First Chapter Society is just one initiative which provides that margin of excellence and propels community involvement, she explained.

Both Wild Words and the Billings Public Library Foundation are passionate about engaging children and their families in a good story’s magic and filling a community need. Offering support makes a significant difference in closing the gap.