DID YOU KNOW THAT ONE IN FIVE ADULT HOUSTONIANS IS FUNCTIONALLY ILLITERATE? OR THAT AS MANY AS 60% OF HOUSTON-AREA KINDERGARTNERS ENTERED SCHOOL WITHOUT THE REQUISITE READING-READINESS SKILLS?
“HOUSTON’S LITERACY CRISIS IS EVIDENT ACROSS ALL AGE GROUPS,” explains NEIL BUSH, Chairman of the Barbara Bush
Houston Literary Foundation (there is also a National Foundation) – so named in honor of his mother, the former First Lady and great champion of literacy. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to reach his or her God-given potential, which is why it is critically important that we attack Houston’s literacy crisis with every resource possible and invest in effective strategies,” he adds.
That starts with volunteers, and the foundation boasts around 5,000 of them engaged in literacy activities in Houston – helping students, schools and neighborhoods – who have signed up through the foundation’s online portal: www.connect4literacy.org. And it continues with board and committee leadership – the foundation is rich with both, with some of the city’s most notable business and philanthropic superstars supporting the effort.
The foundation also is fortunate to have professional expertise from a staff led by President JULIE BAKER FINCK, who has more than 20 years of experience in the field of K–12 education. “She is a true leader, having worked at HISD as chief strategy officer and chief academic officer, with a natural ability to bring people together and build coalitions,” Bush raves. She unites those on the ground working toward a common literacy goal.
Back to Neil’s mom. “She has always been a book person,” he says. “She started the ‘Celebration of Reading’ event 24 years ago, with the brilliant idea of bringing noted authors from different genres together for one evening to read and talk about their books,” he explains. “People leave the event having had a wonderful opportunity to learn, to laugh and to be entertained.” The Celebration of Reading developed an incredible local following. It also, however, raised most of its money for out-of-state literacy causes.
In 2013, BARBARA BUSH turned the reins over to Neil and his wife, MARIA. “I’m the only local kid, so I was the only one she could hand it to,” he laughs. “Maria and I felt like we were being handed the keys to the Titanic because with her stepping away, and people previously donating because of her name and involvement, we thought we might sink.”
However, Neil steered the ship through uncertainty and negotiated with the national literacy foundation to find away to keep money local and “shamelessly leverage” his mom’s brand in her own backyard. “We wanted the money to stay local so that donors would know that their money would stay here. People want to help the community they live in. And you know what? Fundraising is up.”
These days, Neil Bush has also taken on another new role within the family: the one who now reads to his parents. “I go over to their house and read with them to help keep them strong and healthy. Right now, we’re finishing reading her autobiography.”
The legacy continues.