FeFe Handy: Passing on the Passion

Cover story, Fayette Woman, February 2008

Fayette Woman, February 2009

Imagine this: you’re the mother of a child who hates to read. Storytime? He’s not interested. Books collect dust on the shelves in his bedroom. His English grade is a constant source of anxiety. And he’s frustrated—reading seems to come so easily to other kids in his class, while his progress is slow and uncertain.

And you sense that someday in his not-so-distant future as a teenager, he’ll continue to struggle with just about every literature assignment from school. You’ll cajole, scold, and negotiate until he finishes classics like Huck Finn or The Great Gatsby, you’ll turn a blind eye to the Cliffs Notes under his bed, and you’ll try not to show too much disappointment when he squeaks by with a C- in his English class.

Perhaps, too, you know that the greater loss has nothing to do with grades or even with school at all. It’s the likelihood that your child will never know the pleasure of reading. He’ll never crave a moment alone just to finish one more chapter, never stay up way later than he ought just to find out what happens to a fascinating character in a novel, never walk through a bookstore with the same overwhelmed delight as a four-year-old in Suzie Q’s Sweet Shop.

And you can’t do anything about it, since there are some kids who just hate reading, and yours happens to be one of them. Right? Honestly, for a generation raised on X-box, You Tube, MySpace and text messaging, what temptation could Moby Dick possibly offer?

Just don’t tell that to Fayetteville resident FeFe Handy. She would politely beg to differ.

About five or six years ago, FeFe found herself in a situation not unlike the one described above. When it came to reading, her son and daughter were at best indifferent to it, at worst aggrieved by it. She became increasingly concerned, yet a solution to the problem eluded her. She couldn’t turn to their teachers for answers because, technically, her children knew how to read. They just didn’t love it.

One day in 2003, FeFe (who lived in Lithonia at the time) was volunteering at her children’s school, Murphey Candler Elementary. She fell into conversation with another volunteering mom, Sukari Harris, about the novels they were currently reading. As good friends and avid readers, they held this conversation often. On this particular day, however, their conversation turned to the topic of how their children hated reading; Sukari felt the same frustration as FeFe. But instead of shrugging their shoulders in resignation, the two mothers began actively brainstorming for a real solution to the question of how to encourage their children to love reading.

FeFe and her friend hit upon the idea of starting an after-school book club. “We wanted to pull in their peers, classmates and friends as a motivational tool to get them to read,” FeFe explains. “We started researching how to set it up and how to implement it.”

Their idea was to try to make reading a social activity, combining reading books as a group with field trips, fun activities, guest speakers and snacks. Maybe, they thought, if their children and other struggling readers saw their classmates and friends participating and having fun, they might begin to start reading for the joy of it as well.

FeFe and Sukari did some research and presented a proposal to the principal of Murphey Candler, Dr. Barbara Lee. “Her immediate response was, when can you start?” FeFe recalls.

And so the after-school book club was born. Initially called “Pass the Book” (later changed to “PAGE Turners Make GREAT Learners”), the club began with 65 children participating. One of the first important tasks FeFe and her friend encountered was selecting the books. “They had to be educational, but they also had to be fun,” FeFe explains. “They had to expose the children to something out-of-the-box, something that taught them more about the world. We also based our choices around a theme for the year, such as humor, fantasy, multiculturalism, or biography.”

The first month’s theme was humor. They chose Superfudge and Horrible Harry and the Purple People. “The kids were excited—the books were fun, the kids were engaged in the conversations. We were reading along with them, and the kids asked lots of questions.”

FeFe and Sukari made sure that there were plenty of fun activities designed to help open up the reading experience built into the sessions—games, role-playing, puppet shows, art projects—anything and everything connected to the story that could stimulate the children’s imaginations. They also incorporated some literature lessons. “We would also ask about 1st, 2nd,3rd person points of view; time and setting; and using context clues to figure out the story,” FeFe explains.

In addition, they invited adults from the community to come in and talk to the children about how reading is important to their jobs. For example, the theme of one year was “reading with expression.” FeFe and Sukari invited Alicia Barnes of Channel 11 News to come in and show how her job as a reporter depends on her ability to read with expression. The kids were thrilled, plying the celebrity with countless questions about her job.

“Pass the Book” caught on quickly. Students in the club began telling their friends, classmates, parents, and teachers about it. Membership grew as the year went on, and Dr. Lee asked FeFe and Sukari to bring the program back the following year. That fall, over 130 students signed up, and parents were overflowing the media center for club orientation. That’s when FeFe and Sukari realized the significance of their book club. “It was blowing up,” FeFe says. “It was beyond our imagination. We were just parents, doing something for our kids, bringing them the joy of reading, educating their parents as well. They were excited because their kids were excited.”

The club began to experience some growing pains, however. With so many students involved, they faced problem of financing the cost of books, speakers, and field trips. Luckily, as Sukari notes, “FeFe is a mover and a shaker, doing whatever it takes to make things happen.”

Richard Hankins, FeFe’s former boss at the law firm of Kilpatrick Stockton, agrees. “FeFe has a huge heart, a warm personality, and a fantastic smile. At the same time, she has an intense drive and will not be deterred from doing what she believes needs to be done. When you put all of those traits together, it is impossible to say ‘no’ to her.”

FeFe and Sukari began spending a lot of time and energy organizing fundraisers and approaching corporations for sponsorship. Sam’s Club donated many of the books used in the first year, and later on companies such as Brewster’s Ice Cream, Subway, Applebee’s, Best Buy and Bugaboo Creek made donations of coupons and items for raffles. The book club continued and thrived.

Dr. Lee was impressed, and invited FeFe and Sukari to speak about the book club and its impact at a Principals’ Summit in the summer of 2005. The response was overwhelming. “Elementary, middle and high school principals were coming up to us and asking, how can we do something like this?” FeFe remembers. She began to think about expanding the program to other schools, testing the waters by implementing the club in another school, Cedar Grove Elementary in Ellenwood.

That fall, FeFe and her family moved to Fayetteville, and FeFe began commuting to Lithonia every morning for business meetings and fundraising efforts. By the following year, the little book club had grown exponentially. FeFe and her partner were working full-time hours on program planning, advertising and marketing, fundraising, and preparing for business meetings. By this point, the project had become so large that FeFe and Sukari decided to incorporate as a non-profit organization under the name PAGE Turners Make GREAT Learners.

In January 2006, PAGE Turners organized a Celebrity Read-In, hosted and sponsored by the Mall at Stonecrest in Lithonia. Local and national celebrities, including Monica Pearson of WSB-TV’s Channel 2 News, athlete Brian Jordan of the Atlanta Braves, “Dr. Neil” from PBS’s “What’s in a Doctor’s Bag?” show and Christine King Farris, sister of Dr. Martin Luther King, came to read to the audience of children and parents. Each celebrity guest would begin by introducing him- or herself, then go on to discuss their occupation and career, and explain how reading was essential to their job. The guest would then read a story to the audience and finish by reminding children to keep on reading. The Celebrity Read-In was a tremendous success, with the children and their parents listening, laughing, and engaging with the guest readers.

As PAGE Turners grew, FeFe began to realize the larger impact she was having upon children’s lives. In her program research, she found that reading fluently and frequently isn’t just about improving a child’s chances for success in life. For many at-risk children, it’s about improving their chances for survival. “The statistics I found in my research are simply bone-chilling,” FeFe comments.

One example: according to The Literacy Company, “Since 1983, more than 10 million Americans reached the 12th grade without having learned to read at a basic level. In the same period, more than 6 million Americans dropped out of high school altogether.”*

Here’s another from the same source. “More than three out of four of those on welfare, 85% of unwed mothers and 68% of those arrested are illiterate. About three in five of America’s prison inmates are illiterate.”

And finally, did you know that “when the State of Arizona projects how many prison beds it will need, it factors in the number of kids who read well in fourth grade”?  Just think about that one for a moment.

But on the positive side, PAGE Turners had made, and continues to make, a real difference in children’s lives. Parents of PAGE Turners kids have noticed marked improvement in their children’s reading fluency and English grades, as well as an excitement about it that in many cases was not previously there.

“PAGE Turners caused our children to become more excited about reading,” says Dr. Lee. “I had a corner in the school foyer with baskets of books where children could camp out as they waited for mom or dad…I could hardly keep enough books in the baskets.  I found myself visiting library sales on the weekend to replenish the books.  PAGE Turners changed our school culture to one of nurturing a thirst for reading and gaining knowledge.”

Andrea Griggs, a teacher at Murphey Candler who volunteered with the program from its infancy, agrees.  “PAGE Turners has impacted many lives, but to actually witness that light bulb come on during a session, and to know that that light bulb will stay on is an expression of gratitude that is priceless.”

Perhaps the most meaningful praise comes from FeFe’s son and daughter, who have seen firsthand how what started as a little book club could make such a difference for so many.  “My mom gives a gift to young children by showing that reading can be fun and exciting. Through her program she gives children the hope of dreaming to be anything they want to be,” says Christian Handy, her son.  Her daughter Bree hopes that other kids “will join PAGE Turners and see that reading can change their lives like it changed mine.”

Today, PAGE Turners is positioning itself to grow exponentially. FeFe and Sukari recently organized a Board of Trustees and are in the process of securing enough funding to establish the book club in five additional elementary schools, including some in Fayette County. PAGE Turners and Books-a-Million in Peachtree City have organized a reading club for elementary age children, with events scheduled on select weekends throughout the year.

And their future plans? After establishing a strong presence in the metro Atlanta area, FeFe and Sukari want to bring PAGE Turners to schools all across Georgia and, eventually, across the nation.

“Ultimately, by exposing them to knowledge of the world around them, PAGE Turners aims to instill in its students a sense of tolerance, charity and compassion,” FeFe writes in her mission statement for the organization. “As it fosters a spirit of service and appreciation for all people regardless of race, creed, color or ability, it will in turn produce individuals who will be assets to their family, community and country.”

In other words, FeFe’s out to change the world.  And with all that she has accomplished so far, it’s no longer a question of if. It’s a question of when.

*(See http://www.readfaster.com/education_stats.asp for the source of these statistics, as well as other links between illiteracy and social and economic struggles.)