Actress and Save the Children artist ambassador Jennifer Garner went to Mason County’s Ashton Elementary School on Friday to announce six new programs that will give almost 2,500 rural students access to quality early education, literacy, physical activity and nutrition programs.
Save the Children’s U.S. programs work to break the cycle of poverty and improve the lives of children by ensuring they have access to the resources they need, like a quality education, healthy foods and opportunities to grow and develop in a nurturing environment.
“Nothing makes me happier than being here today to officially open six new sites in West Virginia,” the former Charleston resident said to a packed gymnasium full of elementary school students.
“We have fallen behind [in education]. In some places, 85 percent of kids are reading below grade level. I think that is in part because only three out of five kids in America are enrolled in early childhood education programs, which puts kids on the path to success,” she said.
“The more you read, the more you learn and the more you learn, the more you can do.”
The programs reached more than 70,000 children in 13 states last year, said Save the Children managing director Mark Shriver.
West Virginia is the 14th state to implement Save the Children programs, which started here this year.
Garner said bringing the program home to West Virginia means a lot to her.
“If you grow up in West Virginia, there is a little bit of a feeling that you’re on the bottom,” she said, “and there is a little bit of a feeling that other states make fun of you and [say] we’re hillbillies and we don’t wear shoes and we don’t have our teeth.
“And there is also this feeling – that I think is unique to our state – of huge, tremendous pride, and I came out of this state with much more pride than anything else,” Garner said. “And I go stomp around the world saying, ‘I’m from West Virginia,’ because I am so proud of it.”
Save the Children will run programs at Ashton Elementary, Beale Elementary and Point Pleasant
Primary in Mason County, and at Geary, Spencer and Walton elementary schools in Roane County.
The early childhood education program focuses on newborns to 5-year-olds. Save the Children staff members will visit homes to teach parents the importance of reading to their children and using games to facilitate learning and motor-skill development.
Once children are in the first grade, Save the Children starts working with them in school, after school and in summer literacy programs.
Ashton Elementary fifth-grader Jacob Tomlinson said he was a decent reader before, but that the Save the Children after-school reading program has really brought him out of his shell.
“I read in class now,” Tomlinson said. “I wouldn’t do that before.”
He also said the Save the Children volunteer who works with him is fun, and he looks forward to reading.
“Reading is important, because it helps you learn more things, like history and words,” he said. “I like it.”
Suzanne Dickens, superintendent of Mason County Schools, said that while it’s too early to see results from the program, teachers and students, like Jacob, are coming to her with encouraging stories.
One boy said he went from an F to an A in reading because of the program.
“The look on the children’s faces really shows what this is all about,” Dickens said.
Garner, who took time Friday to read with a few Ashton students, said the program is important because “90 percent of your brain growth happens before the age of 5, so before these kids even hit kindergarten, they need to have their brains stimulated.”
Being in the program amounts to gaining almost four extra months of school, which helps kids who have fallen behind in reading.
“When these kids start to catch up, and then excel – the look on their faces; there is nothing like it,” Garner said, “but you won’t have to have kids catch up if they start on the right foot.”
For more information about the Save the Children program, visit www.savethechildren.org.