Kudos: Ford helps First Book efforts to close the literacy gap

Henry Ford's great-great grandaughter, the Ford Fund and First Book partner to advance student success focusing on STEAM skills

Illiteracy has far-reaching consequences, including poverty and unemployment, all detrimental to the success of the global economy.

The automotive industry is not immune, which led the Ford Motor Company to work toward a remedy.

Elena Ford, Ford Motor Company’s chief customer experience officer, is championing a new wave of Ford Fund activities to increase literacy among young people from low-income families

In March, the automaker’s philanthropic Ford Fund announced a new collaborative initiative with First Book, a nonprofit that provides learning essentials to children in need, to improve access to quality education. Championed by Elena Ford, the automaker’s chief customer experience officer – and Henry Ford’s great-great granddaughter — the program will promote literacy while focusing on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics).

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“Literacy is the base for everything, especially in education,” says Joe Avila, who has worked for the Ford Fund since 2011. “We know education opens doors to opportunities for the kid that doesn’t know how to read very well.”

As community development manager, Avila oversees Ford Driving Dreams, a signature program involving Ford dealers and nonprofits worldwide, including the Boys & Girls Club, the Dallas Independent School District, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, United Way Panama and Mexico and First Book.

First Book has partnered with Ford Driving Dreams since 2015, distributing over 100,000 new books to programs and schools serving children from low-income families across the country, Avila explains.

Avila says the program, Operation Better World, is a continuation of founder Henry Ford’s vision and legacy. “He believed that in order to have a sustainable business, we needed to have a sustainable community,” he says.

Since 1949, two years after Ford’s death, the fund has invested over $2 billion in four key areas – supporting education, promoting safe driving, improving community life and encouraging employee volunteerism in over 60 countries.

Ford Driving Dreams was established in 2012 to support students and improve graduation rates among multicultural, underprivileged communities. In Texas, Avila explains, this population is largely represented by Hispanics, who have found that dropping out of school carries long-term effects — and is largely preventable.

The risk of not developing necessary language skills begins in early childhood. According to a 2010 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, citing the National Research Council, a student who reaches the end of third grade with low reading proficiency is unlikely to complete high school.

“With that mindset, Ford Driving Dreams not only provides scholarships, but also brings inspiration to multi-varied students and young people to connect their dreams with academic achievement,” Avila says.

Alongside financial assistance and book donations, Ford Driving Dreams supplies career-building activities, tutoring, networking programs, college prep tools and motivational events. Thus far, the program has helped more than 200,000 students by delivering over $10 million in educational resources, according to last year’s annual report.

The new initiative is expected to further this work. Although it launched in Dallas, its efforts will spread to Kansas City and Phoenix later this year.

All three cities share a need for more reading programs. Ford’s March press release cites Literacy Instruction for Texas, which notes there are over 800,000 adults in Dallas County who are illiterate, and by 2030, that number could jump over 1 million – one-third of the area’s projected population. In Arizona, according to a 2015 impact report released by Read On Arizona, 84 percent of children from low-income families read less than proficiently.

Despite this, the number of STEAM career opportunities is expected to keep increasing over the next decade, Avila explains. In fact, Texas is expected to have the second-highest percentage of the nation’s future jobs requiring such specialized skills, according to Ford’s press release and Educate Texas.

“There is a big, big gap, and in the automotive industry, the gap is even higher,” Avila says. “Being an automotive company, we definitely need to continue doing our part to help to close the gap.”

Ford and First Book will distribute an additional 30,000 STEAM-related books by the end of the year – 10,000 to each of the aforementioned cities under the new initiative.

“First Book built a curated collection of STEAM titles on the First Book marketplace to spark that curiosity and encourage students to see themselves in STEAM careers,” says Kyle Zimmer, president, CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit, in Ford’s press release. “We could not be more grateful to Ford for its investment in expanding the breadth and the reach of the collection. It will yield benefits for an entire generation.”

Many of those STEAM titles feature protagonists who overcome obstacles, including racism, sexism and poverty, to follow their dreams. Importantly, Avila explains, these topics are relatable to the initiative’s target community – children from low-income families in underserved neighborhoods.

“The Doctor with an Eye for Eyes: The Story of Dr. Patricia Bath,” by Julia Finley Mosca, for example, depicts the pioneering scientist as a young girl during the Civil Rights Movement, who dreams of becoming a doctor. Among many accomplishments, Bath became the first African-American female ophthalmologist to patent a medical invention, a new device and technique for cataract surgery.

Besides book donations and monthly reading parties, Avila explains, the literacy effort will also engage more employees in mentoring students through STEAM Camp. That program will help students explore and understand potential options for their future, by participating in interactive STEAM-related activities.

At one event, they built a small vehicle with the resources provided, not knowing that their finished product would be involved in a crash test, Avila explains.

“We actually gave them an egg, and with that egg, whoever crashed the vehicle more times without breaking the egg was the winner,” he said. “Yes, it was a little messy, but it was a lot of fun.”

The impact of this particular initiative, like Ford Driving Dreams, may not reach every state, but that’s not necessary the goal, Avila says. The aim is to simply listen and meet specific community needs.

Each year, the Ford Fund invests more than $16 million to support educational initiatives, such as this, so that students may pursue their highest potential through their academic years and beyond. Its impact, in turn, will help solve challenges that might otherwise hinder economic development.

Elena Ford reads to children as part of Ford Fund’s expanding initiatives to increase literacy among low-income families

“By engaging students at a younger age, we’re providing them more opportunities,” Avila says. “We’re opening their eyes to learn about fields that hopefully they can pursue in the future and help us to close the gap.”

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