Save the Children’s Important Literacy Work Here at Home and How to Help: A Q&A with Judith Jerald

by Laura Lambert

You’re probably familiar with Save the Children’s international work, but you might be surprised by all the work they do here at home in the United States — particularly around the issue of early childhood education and literacy. I sure was — that is, until I spoke with Judith Jerald, Save the Children’s early childhood advisor. Here’s what I learned — including how you can help Brightly support Save the Children’s efforts to provide books to kids in need. Scroll to the bottom to learn how one click can make a difference in a child’s life.


Tell me a bit about Save the Children’s work domestically.

Our focus, domestically, is on early childhood and early education, beginning with pregnancy up to age 8. We focus on rural areas — specifically, rural resource-poor areas — because that is where we are seeing the greatest need.

We have home-visit programs for families, from pre-birth up to age 5, and we have Head Start programs in the Deep South, which are pre-birth up to age 5. And then we have a literacy program in schools, when the other programs end. They focus on developing better readers up to age 8.

Then, of course, what most people know about, is our emergency program. For Hurricane Sandy, for example, we provided 100,000 children with emergency relief and recovery.

What is the Invest in Childhood campaign about?

Invest in Childhood is an agency-wide campaign — international as well as U.S. programs. There are two pieces. One is to raise awareness about the need for early childhood education, and the other is to raise funds.

Why is early learning so crucial to Save the Children’s mission?
Our mission, really, is to make sure that children are successful. What we’ve learned from all of the research and our own experience is that you have to start early. You have to work with parents. You have to have duration, continuity. You can’t go in for six months and leave. You’ve got to be there.

One of my favorite phrases is, “Babies can’t wait. Kindergarten is too late.” Children are certainly born ready to learn. But the statistics say if a child hasn’t gotten what they need by age 4, you see an 18-month gap — and most children don’t ever catch up.

Why is it important for parents to start reading to their babies early on?

Vocabulary and experience — and they go together. We know that vocabulary and language have a high correlation to a child’s success in school. That’s where we start. It’s about reading, singing, rhyming — and making sure parents use everyday routines to do that, to talk with their children frequently. It’s not something that parents know to do automatically.

How does income level impact school readiness and early literacy?

I don’t think it’s income all by itself or poverty all by itself. It’s poverty and what poverty brings to a family — higher stress, less money, more working hours, less education, higher levels of drug or alcohol abuse, and fractured families.

When I was [working for] Head Start, there was a big impact study. We found that if a child or family had five risk factors — such as a teen parent, single parent, alcoholism — we had no impact on those children.

With our Save the Children program, particularly the home-based program, we see the same risk factors, we are serving the same demographic, yet we are getting results.

Why is that, do you think?

My thought is that these are small communities where people know each other. The home visitor knows the families and has a connection to the school. We’re not trying to do everything. We’re not trying to be everything. We are focusing on the Parent-Child relationship to support the child.

What challenges do children living in poverty face when it comes to early childhood?

Mostly, it’s lack of knowledge on the part of the parent. The parent doesn’t know what to say or what to do with the child. They don’t talk with a child. In many of the homes, nobody’s communicating with the child.

It’s lack of print, too. There’s very little print in the home, no books in the home, which is why we provide home libraries. That’s an important piece of it.

But really, it’s not knowing. Everybody cares. I’ve been at this a long time and I’ve never met a parent who doesn’t want to do the very best for their children. But I’ve met so many who didn’t know what to do or who were doing the wrong thing.

What moments have you been especially proud of?

Well, I am proud of the results. This is an inexpensive program to run because we hire para-professionals who we train, train, train. We put money and time into them. We work with local schools — [the home visitors] are housed at the school and we wrap our program around it. I’m proud of the model and the results.

I think in some ways, I’m most proud that we are building a generation that knows about early childhood. These home visitors, who come with little experience, become the infant-and-toddler experts in their communities. I’ve seen them blossom and grow and go on to do really good things.

And, for me, it’s also about sustainability. If we had to leave these communities, they could support themselves now. They get it. And because it’s a relatively inexpensive program, a poor rural community could do it.

Where can parents and educators go for resources they can use at home or in their classrooms?

One place is certainly the local library. We build very strong school libraries in the communities where we are. We are a Reach Out and Read partner, so we have a grant to put books in home libraries but also books in doctor’s offices and pediatrician’s offices.

There’s so much online as well. One very good early childhood site is Zero to Three. Another one is the Head Start Early Childhood Knowledge and Learning Center.

How can Brightly readers get involved?

Well, for sure, sponsorship is the way. Our sponsors pay for at least a third of what we do. And it’s mostly small donations that add up to a significant amount of funding for us.

Help Brightly and Save the Children spread the love of books and reading. Donate a book to a child in need in just a few seconds and at no cost to you. Scroll down to like/comment on Facebook, retweet, or ❤/comment on our Instagram photo below. For each action taken by 9/30, Brightly will donate a book, up to 10,000 books.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.