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Ferst Readers celebrates 20 years in Greene, Putnam counties

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    A classroom of students smile with their book of the month. CONTRIBUTED
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    An excited student checks out the title and cover of his new book. CONTRIBUTED
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    A young student reads her monthly book from Ferst Readers. CONTRIBUTED
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    Pre-COVID Seuss on the Loose fundraiser, with (left to right) Nancy Marshall, Dr. Rush Utley, Pamelia Swymer, Cindy Womack, Nancy Bolen, Linda Elkins and Debbie Skinner. Thing 1 and Thing 2 are Colby Hunter and Maria Alexander, respectively. CONTRIBUTED
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    Ferst Readers has built a number of Little Free Libraries across Putnam County. This sign outside the Eatonton-Putnam County Library tells readers where each Little Free Library can be found. CONTRIBUTED
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    In 2019, Cammie Edwards (left) Peggy Holland (right) read for children at the library reading program. CONTRIBUTED

Twenty years ago, Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy delivered its first round of free books to the children of Putnam and Greene Counties, fostering a love for reading in the up-and-coming generation.

Today, Ferst Readers has a new name but the same passion for providing children with quality books for each stage of early development.

Although COVID has fundamentally altered the way the world operates, Ferst Readers has pursued its mission nonetheless and found ways to continue its two yearly fundraisers, Seuss on the Loose and the joint Putnam-Greene Fall Fundraiser, and there are ideas in the works for a third fundraiser.

This year’s goal is to gather enough donations to fund 500 readers. For $36, supporters can “adopt a reader” and fund a book per month for one child.

Dr. Rush Utley, an educator with a heart for children, has been with the program since about 2003 and has witnessed tremendous growth.

When he first got involved, Ferst Readers was in a disastrous financial state. Despite fundraisers, the program wasn’t yet well-known, and so there was little help at first.

“When Cathy [Mize, Chairwoman of Ferst Readers,] came along [in 2007] and the other teachers [from] the school system, that’s when it really took off,” Utley said. “That’s when we became the Ferst we are today, but we really struggled in the early years.”

Even when they struggled, Utley said the organization never stopped allowing parents to sign their children up.

The program has had significant impact on the young readers of Greene and Putnam, such as Jalyn Surmelin, now 21, who graduated both high school and Georgia Southern University with honors and is now headed into the Navy as an officer.

Jalyn’s mother, Tracy Surmelin, was one of the first parents to take advantage of the program in its early years. Surmelin signed up for free to have books mailed to her daughter each month.

“I think that Ferst Foundation really got her intrigued in books,” Surmelin said. Learning to read and reading at home helped Jalyn understand what she was being taught at school, Surmelin said.

“I think anybody who is a new mom, or anybody who wants a continuous supply of books to come to their child once a month should get in the program,” Surmelin said. “It’s an awesome program.”

Before COVID, Ferst Readers staff and volunteers would read the monthly books to children at the library and the primary schools. Unfortunately with the pandemic, they have been unable to do either, but hope to start again as soon as possible.

In the future, Mize said they have plans to start a family literacy initiative called “Conversations Count” where Ferst can share with parents ways to improve their child’s literacy awareness in little ways, with simple, easy conversations and activities. They also hope to partner with the housing authority to present programs to residents, which realistically, Mize believes could be a goal for next school year.