Smart Start of Mecklenburg County Partners with Inlivian to Bring Literacy Resources to Families

April 2023

The literacy team of Smart Start of Mecklenburg County (SSMC) have been a staple at family-friendly events across the county for years. You've seen them. The table with the famous Dolly Parton cutout that people flock to take selfies with.

Connecting with families at events is easy. There's a mutual goal between those manning tables and families seeking information. But what about those that work weekends or don't have consistent transportation?

Noticing a hole in the reach she had in the community, Smart Start's Literacy Coordinator, Ayesha Rahim, reached out to Inlivian's Senior Vice President of Community Partnerships, Chris Campbell, to propose a workshop for families. "At a lot of the events we weren't really encountering some of our target communities, and so I realized we had to go into different spaces," said Rahim.

Realizing the scope and importance this could have for residents, Campbell countered with the idea of a six-month series of workshops at a pair of apartment complexes to establish a better relationship with the community and build trust and credibility.

"My hope was to provide families with tools that would make reading fun for the entire household," said Campbell.
Inlivian, formerly the Charlotte Housing Authority, provides stable, quality affordable housing opportunities for low and moderate income families. The workshops would take place at two of Inlivian's apartment community spaces.

"We had three objectives; to increase family awareness on the importance and the impact of early literacy. To empower families to engage with their children in meaningful ways and to promote literacy development. And to provide families with the tools, resources, and strategies and materials to support their child's early literacy development," said Rahim.

The first order of business, figure out how to fill the workshops with engaging and new ideas to keep families focus, and to get them back through the doors month after month. Rahim reached out to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Parent-Child Plus, who helped provide input on different topics they thought families would benefit from. "Instead of just providing them with the information, we wanted to make sure they walked away with some of the tools and materials that they needed to implement those things at home and to build on existing family routines," said Rahim.

Partnering with fellow SSMC programs like The Dolly Parton Imagination Library, The Basics Mecklenburg and Ready4k, and community partners like the Hope Street Pantry, the workshop outline came into focus and the series began in November.

Around the same time, Smart Start's new Literacy Support Specialist, Alyssa Wood, began her new position while the workshops were in already motion, and took the challenge in stride.

"I was so excited to do it because this is the kind of thing I pushed for where I worked before. I loved it because the whole family would come ... It was a community building experience."

The series ran every few weeks from November to March, rotating between two sites. Parents and children were posed with crafts and games to get them playing and working together. 

"Seeing how interested the parents were and learning and engaging with their children. We thought we might have to push and prod them to get on the floor and play with the kids, but from the jump, they were really involved and had a really great time," said Rahim.

The families were enthusiastic and truly valued the information. Physical materials and goods were also sent home to encourage further growth and involvement. Families received early literacy pieces like ABC refrigerator magnets, "Read" posters, and spelling games. Books, toys and early literacy milestones with activities were also distributed. Thanks to Hope Street, attendees to a pair of workshops took home produce, fresh meat, and milk. On top of information and materials to take home, families left with a bigger sense of community. Extended family they can turn to now in their own building.

"Different people in the community coming together, sharing food, listening to a workshop, the kids were playing together, it was nice to see," said Wood.

After the workshops ended, Rahim ran into one of the families at a park. The parent's response to the chance encounter was everything she hoped it would be. 'When are you guys coming back? Are you going to do it again?' Just seeing that, and a lot of the residents said that they know more of their neighbors and they get together independently of the workshops now to hang out with their kids and take them to the park. It was nice to see that we actually started to help them build and create community in their residential complex," said Rahim.

The series had as big an effect on our literacy team as it did the families they worked with. And the best part, according to Wood, "working with the kids. That's easy! Put me at the kids table, every single time!" Thanks to its success, SSMC is discussing continuing this format with community partners to support the vision that all children in Mecklenburg County enter kindergarten healthy and ready to succeed.