Bringing Up Bookworms

Cultivating young bibliophiles in Aspen’s Roaring Fork Valley, Raising a Reader empowers families and the community.

By Julia Szabo

Of her many career highs, Aspen hospitality pro Jayne Poss is proudest to see young children toting bags filled with books they can’t wait to open and read. This new chapter in her life began as Poss was looking for “something new that would give my approaching sixth decade deeper meaning,” she says. Lamenting to a friend that grandchildren might not materialize for her, Poss remembered “how much I had enjoyed the very early years of my children’s lives. My friend immediately said, ‘Jayne, there’s a national, evidence-based, early-childhood literacy program in northern California called Raising a Reader…check it out!”

That was two decades ago. “With support from local early-childhood specialists in our Roaring Fork Valley—I had no education degrees or certifications—Raising a Reader Aspen to Parachute was launched in the fall of 2003. It was a tight timeline,” Poss adds. “At at one point I asked if we should wait until the following school year; one team member’s response was, ‘We are talking about a small developmental window, of birth to 5 years old—we cannot afford to lose a year to bring RAR into these children’s very young lives.’” Today, Poss reports that “RAR Aspen to Parachute is flourishing…. Red book bags for children under age 6 continue to be filled with the most gorgeous books, while next-level readers proudly carry blue library bags to the library to be refilled.”

Empowering children, parents and communities, RAR Aspen to Parachute engages parents and children—newborn to 5 years old—in a routine of daily book sharing to foster brain development, parent-child bonding and critical early literacy skills. The goal is to provide families with storybooks—like A Day for Rememberin’, illustrated by the Coretta Scott King Award-winning Floyd Cooper—and parental guidance to build family bonds and encourage positive conversations to set children on the path to school and life success.

Poss did ultimately get the grandchild she hoped for, and RAR has brought her many more—1,400 at last count: That’s roughly how many kids from Aspen to Parachute benefited from RAR’s programming in the latest school year. “To watch a toddler firmly grasp their book bag and trundle out of the child care setting with their parent/caregiver is such a sight to behold,” Poss marvels. “And do not think for a moment of gently nudging that book bag away from them. It won’t work!”

When the time came “to pass the baton to new leadership that would take the program to its well-deserved next steps,” Poss recalls, “all I asked was, ‘Just make it better’—and they went above and beyond.”

Current Executive Director Suzanne Wheeler-Del Piccolo, former principal of Basalt Elementary School, was an early believer and supporter of bringing RAR into classrooms. “Families who experience the joyful routine of reading at home together,” says Wheeler-Del Piccolo, “cuddling up with a book for 10 to 20 minutes each night. This is health care for both the child and the parent.”

Wheeler-Del PIccolo has overseen the program’s evolution into a powerful force for community wellness. A Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation grant for National Dental Health Awareness Month enabled RAR to put even more perks in its signature totes: toothbrushes, plus a book about a fun trip to the dentist. “Families in our program are not only engaging in literacy, language and learning bonding,” Wheeler-Del Piccolo adds. “They’re also getting great tools to help build healthy home environments.”