When life gives you a pandemic

During the pandemic, a graduating class finds a way to make the most of a bad situation by donating its unused events fund to a good cause, supporting literacy in children experiencing homelessness.
Image by Molly Clarke.

For Molly Clarke, MSc(A)’21, and her graduating class in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (SCSD), a dearth of in-person social events during the pandemic became a golden opportunity to do something positive with a social purpose. Annika Hanson, MSc(A)’21, president of the SCSD Graduate Student Society, led the discussion and student council member Daniel Dunn, MSc(A)’21, proposed donating books to children as the most appealing solution for using unspent social funds.

“From our perspective as speech-language pathology students and professionals, reading is the most important thing you can do with young children to support and impact language development. In the context of the pandemic, with kids being out of school and learning from home, the whole class decided to rededicate our unused social event funds to give new books to high-needs children in the community,” says Clarke, who grew up near St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, and now works as a speech-language pathologist in private practice with Spirit Psychological in Halifax.

As community service coordinator for student council, Clarke jumped at the opportunity to implement the idea and identify children who could benefit most from donated books. “I said, ‘I’m willing to take this on if you give me free rein to run with the idea,’” recalls Clarke.

After approaching various women’s and children’s shelters in Montreal, Clarke and her classmates chose to support Chez Doris, a downtown shelter for women, and a shelter run by Montreal community organization Sun Youth, with a collection of children’s and teen books for their clients. “Given the importance of literacy in early childhood development and the precarious living situation for these kids, we decided that book donations to women’s and children’s shelters would be a good demographic target and an apt fit,” she says.

Clarke quickly realized, however, that she needed a funding partner to help provide enough books for children at the two shelters. “We had $300 to donate and books are expensive,” says Clarke, who called an acquaintance, the manager of an Indigo bookstore in Newfoundland, and was referred to Gregory Ashman, National Programs Specialist, Indigo Love of Reading Foundation. “Indigo agreed to provide books at 30% off and contributed another $400 donation. With $700, we were able to buy 136 books for children at the two shelters.”

Curating books for each child

Choosing specific books for kids hungry to read was a labour of love for Clarke, who did an undergraduate degree in linguistics and English literature at Memorial University. “This was a passion project and right in my wheelhouse. There were 17 children ranging from 18 months old to 16 at Chez Doris and it was fun to pick books for kids individually. I also chose books from a wide range of cultures including the Black and Indigenous communities,” says Clarke, who is an avid reader and has a personal collection of about 1,500 books.

Her selections included classics fondly remembered from her own childhood, such as the board book Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See?, The Balloon Tree for kids 5 to 8, and Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, for a 12-year-old girl at Chez Doris. “It’s the ultimate book for young girls coming of age,” says Clarke. Her diverse picks also featured Yangsook Choi’s The Name Jar, about a young Korean girl who grapples with the issue of whether to change her hard-to-pronounce name, Unhei; I’m Not Your Mexican Daughter for a 16-year-old; and Hair Love, the story of Zuri, an African-American girl who enlists the help of her father in styling her unruly hair, co-written by former NFL wide receiver Matthew A. Cherry. She also chose the Hatchet adventure series for boys.

The SCSD students gave three books to each young child and two novels to the older ones living with their moms for extended periods at the women’s shelter. “The kids were delighted and excited because they are going back to school with new books to read and write about for their book reports. The moms were also really happy,” says Clarke.

The Sun Youth shelter’s needs are different because its teen clients typically seek safe, emergency shelter for a short stay. “The youth shelter wanted a collection of books for a mini-library. To maximize the number of books we could buy, I chose box sets of series like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Anne of Green Gables and Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” she says.

How books advance early language development

The power of books to promote early language development, expand vocabulary, and increase literacy (reading and writing skills) in children is strongly supported by many research studies. “Book reading is one of the most powerful ways to present language to babies and toddlers for several reasons,” says Professor Susan Rvachew, associate dean and director of the SCSD, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“First, joint attention and hearing words in face-to-face conversation is important for a child’s early vocabulary development. Toddlers and mothers both share the same focus of attention while reading a book, looking at pictures and words, and sharing conversation. Second, the language in books is usually at a higher level than regular language, so reading books is an opportunity to introduce a higher quality of language and vocabulary. Third, comprehension monitoring matters. When a parent reads to a toddler, they are checking to see how well the child understands the words and their meaning,” she explains.

Rvachew is gratified that SCSD students decided to support child language development and literacy through the gift of reading. “I’m thrilled and proud of the students for choosing to use their funds to support this literacy project. It was very appropriate because a lot of our graduates will be working with children’s language development, a large part of which happens in the first three years. Also, speech pathologists have a broader role in terms of raising the language skills of everyone in the community, particularly children at risk of speech and language problems,” she says.

Community service and supporting children and their families with a variety of learning, behavioural and communication challenges comes naturally for Clarke. As an undergrad, she worked with autistic children in both one-on-one and group settings through the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador and started a rock-climbing club for children with autism spectrum disorder.

“I’ve always valued community involvement, giving where and when I can. It’s great that everyone in the class was so on board with using the money for a community literacy project. I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out how best to help these children and their moms, and the appreciation you get feels good. Reading is one of the main predictors of academic success. If you can instill a love of reading and writing, and of words and language, that will serve children well not only academically but in all areas of life,” says Clarke.


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