Reading Aloud with Read to Me International

Kara Kusunoki shares the impact reading aloud can have with families and the greater community.

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Austin Hattox: Today, we're going to be speaking with Kara Kusunoki, executive director of Read To Me. Kara, welcome to the show.

Kara Kusunoki: Thanks so much, Austin, for having me.

Austin Hattox: For those in our audience who aren't already familiar, could you talk a little about Read To Me and what it is you guys do?

Kara Kusunoki: Sure. So Read To Me International is a nonprofit founded in 1996 in the State of Hawaii. And our mission is pretty simple, it's to promote the love and joy of reading aloud, specifically to young children. And we believe that there is a huge significance in being able to read to children from a young age, as far as the vocabulary, their academic development, and the social-emotional development with bonding with their families and teachers at such an early age. So our activities, our programs, our events are all around coaching adults to support their children in their literacy efforts and growth.

Austin Hattox: That's really cool. One thing that attracted me to you guys was the simplicity of your message, but also the impact. It's not something that I would normally think of having that big of an impact, but looking back on my life, I was read to a lot as a child. And I found I read every day now and I feel like that was a big push and why it eventually became a habit for me.

Kara Kusunoki: Absolutely, Austin. And I think I share very similar thoughts to that as a child. I was a fairly unengaged child in school, and I think that my parents and my teachers didn't know what to do with me, they didn't know how to engage me further in school. One day, they just let me read off in the side of the corner, it was actually called The Chronicles of Narnia: The Witch, the Wardrobe, and the Lion, I believe.

Kara Kusunoki: And so they allowed me to read that. And from there, the love of reading started and I actually started doing better in school whenever it came to reading, which is practically everything that we do in our lives. So that really set a strong foundation for that love of reading and engaged in school, as well as just the ability to connect with my parents and teachers more.

Austin Hattox: So in terms of program structure, do you guys provide training to parents, or how do you achieve this goal? What does it look like logistically?

Kara Kusunoki: Sure. Our primary target audience are parents or caregivers or even educators that work with young children. And so, because they are our primary audience, we are coaching parents, educators and caregivers to really equip them with the tools and strategies of how to support their children when reading aloud to them. So we have classes, we have multiple week programs, we have a national quality conference that's open to the public. And these are all to provide professional learning opportunities for people that are interested in learning how to better support children as they progress and read aloud.

Austin Hattox: Excellent. That's really, really cool. Really interesting approach. And I'm sure that's really effective too, to do it like a community based type audience.

Kara Kusunoki: Right. And we believe, Read To Me International believes that parents are oftentimes children's first teachers in life. And so we want to build the skills, the behaviors, habits, attitudes needed so that they can be their child's strongest advocate in life academically, socially, emotionally. And we know that those read aloud interactions capture a lot of those intangible things that you would consider as part of the read aloud process.

Austin Hattox: To give our listeners a more personal sense of your impact, do you have any stories about individuals or families where you've made an especially large difference?

Kara Kusunoki: It's so difficult to choose. We do have quite a few stories, Austin, to share. One alumni from our program. We also work in prisons and correctional facilities in the state of Hawaii. We work with incarcerated parents who are looking for ways to connect with their children, even though they are incarcerated themselves. So one of the programs that we have is that we work with incarcerated mothers to write, illustrate and publish their own children's story books, that are then sent home to their child along with an audio recording of them reading aloud to their children. And some mothers are able to read out to their children and send the message home that they still love them and they're thinking of them constantly.

Kara Kusunoki: So one of our alumni through this program was an incarcerated mother who had not had contact with her daughter since being incarcerated. And her daughter understandably was fairly upset, did not know what was going on with her mother's incarceration. And the family did not really want them to be in contact for visitation in person. So alumni participant wrote a book called Mommy Loves You, and she did the illustrations for it. And it was basically a tribute to reminding her daughter that even though she was separated from her, that she still loved her. And she was able to mail that book home along with the audio recording to her daughter, her daughter received it.

Kara Kusunoki: That was actually the start of rekindling that relationship between mother and child. And so when our participant was released from prison, she was able to reconnect with her daughter. And they are now, fast forward to two years, she is off of parole, she is living together with her daughter and she's the primary caregiver. And we are so proud of our alumni who are able to turn their lives around and make a new start and using reading as a catalyst to do that.

Austin Hattox: That is a super cool story. That's so inspiring. Obviously, reading aloud to children is very important, but that seems to take you guys' idea and spin it to something so much larger where you're helping rebuild families in a way.

Kara Kusunoki: Right. And we know that research findings show how valuable reading is to a child's academic development and growth, but we also need to consider how it develops children's socially and emotionally. The messages that we send through books, the discussions that we have about books, morals and themes. These are all important takeaways for our children to have when they have that precious time with their parents or a teacher who cares about them, or even a caregiver who is dedicated to seeing them through their youngest phases of life and helping them to develop.

Austin Hattox: That makes a lot of sense. What age groups are typically included within this program or within this wider organization?

Kara Kusunoki: Sure. Read To Me supports parents who have children from newborns through grade five, primarily. Though we know that a lot of the practices can still be promoted with children that are older than the fifth grade. We have alumni who still come to all of our annual conferences every year, who do our virtual read aloud with us because they know that their child is never too old to be read to out loud. And they use it as a tradition, or some of us like to call it a bedtime, nighttime tradition where they're reading aloud together, discussing the moral or the theme of the story together, and using that as a bonding mechanism.

Austin Hattox: How do you guys get the word out about Read To Me?

Kara Kusunoki: Well, Read To Me is about 24 years old, and so we're able to use a lot of our existing community partnerships to get the word out about our website, which is available to anyone in the world that has resources about distant learning, different books that are encouraged, different crafting things that you can do. So we work with community partners from our website, we work with them to also recruit for our programs and events. And we've been fortunate just because Hawaii is the Aloha State, and we feel like a lot of the work that we do collectively moves the ball forward for our children and our families in Hawaii.

Austin Hattox: And so that you brought up your website, what role would you say your website serves in the overall idea of accomplishing your mission?

Kara Kusunoki: Our goal for the Read To Me website is to serve as a repository and resource site for parents, educators, caregivers, social service providers, to be able to quickly refer to best practices and resources regarding reading and reading aloud. So you can find anything from age appropriate book lists to distance learning resources, especially during this time where COVID-19 has impacted quite a few of our communities, as well as videos that demonstrate reading aloud tips and strategies. We like to try to update our website as much as possible to make sure that it's a relevant and responsive website for all parents.

Austin Hattox: That's something I should mention, is that you guys have a very nice web presence. And that was one thing that set you guys apart where I thought like, wow, their design is really well done and this is very age appropriate. It's a cute website, but very effective in its execution I think.

Kara Kusunoki: Thanks, Austin.

Austin Hattox: Yeah. My wife was looking over my shoulder the other day and was like, "Hey, what website is that?" Your website is good, but what's something that you think your website could do better.

Kara Kusunoki: That's a tough one, because we receive so many different kinds of requests for different materials from users that visit our website. I think one thing that Read To Me is looking at is, how do we get more community members involved in doing read alouds out in the community, as well as digital storage of those read alouds. So that people can click a button, look at a celebrity reading aloud and learn why it's so important to read aloud to children, and even be able to model their read alouds after best practices that celebrities share. And so we're looking at that and we're working on it. We're slowly updating our website with the readers that we do have. And we are also just keeping an eye out for other partners that are interested in doing that work as we proceed.

Austin Hattox: That's really cool. I didn't even think of that aspect of being able to preserve these read alouds, and especially for celebrities or especially well done read alouds. That would be a pretty big asset for you guys.

Kara Kusunoki: Right. We believe in access and we know access is a pretty big issue and topic these days. And so the more that we can provide read aloud strategies and tips via modeling, we believe that that will be more effective. So people can see, watch, experience to the extent possible, so that they can support their children when at home.

Austin Hattox: Right. Making it more palpable, almost like you can see what it's actually like in action.

Kara Kusunoki: Exactly. It's one thing to talk about something, but it's another thing to read it out loud and see the flavor, the dynamics, the volume changed, all of that. The fluency pieces.

Austin Hattox: How do you guys raise funds to keep your mission going?

Kara Kusunoki: Read To Me raises it's funds through a variety of methods. We have our own fundraisers each year, we also apply to foundations, charitable foundations for grants, we also ask and request from state funds. We also welcomely accept individual donations through our website. We basically try to do all of the different fundraising strategies and techniques we can, especially during this difficult time where we understand that finances for folks are pretty tight. And so we always appreciate any support that we can get from people that believe in our mission, which is to share the love and joy of reading out loud.

Austin Hattox: Totally. And you touched on this a little bit in your response, but how has coronavirus impacted you guys' normal operations?

Kara Kusunoki: The coronavirus presents some interesting opportunities and challenges for Read To Me. A lot of our coaching programs were done in person, so since then we've had to shift and rethink how to deliver effective programming when it's not done in person. And so we've moved to different strategies such as doing virtual read alouds one-on-one with our families, calling them up and scheduling appointments to doing read alouds with their children. So that their children can still have the opportunity to read aloud together with us and see how parents model those strategies at home.

Kara Kusunoki: We've also started tinkering with the idea of doing virtual learning opportunities. So having a virtual conference, having smaller virtual groups put together to discuss certain things around literacy and reading aloud, as well as, as we move through this pandemic, thinking about smaller group setups for our programs that comply with social distancing guidelines and keep everyone safe. So it's kind of a hodgepodge of different things that we're thinking about, dreaming about and working towards as we go through this pandemic.

Austin Hattox: It sounds like you guys are adapting pretty well. When you say conference, do you mean something like a gathering online, obviously, that educators or parents could join to discuss how to do read aloud properly? Or is there something else that you guys would do within the context of a conference?

Kara Kusunoki: Well, we are exploring different concepts. So our typical structure is traditional conference where we have keynote speakers and then we have breakout sessions for attendees who attend, where they can learn about specific subject matters around literacy. That's one model that we are thinking about operating in 2021 and beyond. As well as, we're looking at other options such as an unconference where people are able to lead the conversation around topics that inspire them, that motivate them to think about literacy in different ways. And so that would be attendee led rather, so that they could create their own value from their unconference experience. So thinking about it a little bit differently as we go, especially when thinking about the virtual space and what works well in that arena.

Austin Hattox: I love that idea of facilitating the conversation and making sure that those conversations are happening and empowering your community to be able to give back and refine their own ideas and I guess do more read alouds and get the love spread.

Kara Kusunoki: Right. It's all about building comfortability around, and confidence in feeling like someone who's more equipped to support their child or children or students. So that the child can then embrace the love of reading as well, find it a fun and enjoyable and even reflective experience for them rather than a task at school.

Austin Hattox: That's a good point. Yeah. I love that framing. If you could wave a magic wand and have something change about your organization or the world, even if it were impossible, what would it be and why?

Kara Kusunoki: I know that I mentioned access before in this podcast segment. I think that access and inability to access certain items such as the internet, books and resources, different tools and strategies, I think are constantly things that we're trying to work around and figure out, how can we create more access for our families and communities so that they can support and strengthen their own abilities to help children. And I think that if I had that magic wand, I think things like access or inaccess would be eliminated, so that there could be more of an impact and faster that and just a more collective effort overall.

Austin Hattox: Excellent. Yeah. That seems like it's pretty key to you guys' mission and overall goals. Are you battling with any tech issues right now?

Kara Kusunoki: Well, I think that for Read To Me, technology and having to figure out all the technological aspects of how to connect with people virtually is a challenge. And I think that every organization is probably going through its own growing pains of sorts with that. And so we're in the same boat as a lot of other nonprofits who are trying to figure out the best way to serve their communities and families using the technology at hand, and also building our skill too at the same time. We're building the ship as we go, and I would say that that's probably very similar to other organizations. And we believe in exchanging any ideas and resources with others as we can, as we develop our own abilities as well.

Austin Hattox: Yeah, I think you guys are in good company with trying to adapt to the changing situation. How does your organization utilize social media?

Kara Kusunoki: Read To Me has different social media channels. Primarily we use Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. And our handle is at readtomeintl on both Facebook and Instagram. And we use that to post updates about our events, uplift different activities and events that are happening in the community, as well as different read aloud resources that can be used by anyone.

Austin Hattox: Yeah. And I guess you've opened my eyes a little bit where I didn't even think about how the shift to you guys going online helps in terms of your spread, and you're maybe a little less focused on just your local community, because now you have more stuff online and more capabilities online. You're talking about this conference and stuff. Do these changes help you guys to increase that spread and reach more places beyond your local community?

Kara Kusunoki: That's a great question, Austin. I mean, we've found so far in the last two months that the reach of the social media posts, as well as just resources we've posted on our website has reached a broader audience. We received messages from other people living in other countries that we haven't connected with before. We're seeing people repost our materials as well as share with others. So we have seen a broader reach which actually helps to accomplish one of our goals, which, again, was access. How do we really serve those that are in need in different communities? And this allows us to do that. So there has been an opportunity that has happened in the last couple of months due to the pandemic, and how it's refocused us to think about reaching communities in different ways.

Austin Hattox: I could see how that's a benefit. You're definitely spinning a bad situation into a good thing, but in your case, maybe it'll work out.

Kara Kusunoki: We're trying our very best, as I'm sure everyone else is.

Austin Hattox: What is the most dramatic or exciting shift you're seeing in your space today?

Kara Kusunoki: One of the things that I think personally that gives us inspiration to do the work that we do as an organization is seeing people's passion to unite and collaborate and break down some of the barriers that existed before. People are learning that there is a new normal, and there are other ways to work together. And in Hawaii, we've seen a lot of Aloha being shared across our communities. And I think that that inspires me, and in turn the organizations who really rethink how we are supporting one another and how we're collaborating across shared goals and common purposes. And thinking about what can shift and what can change as we go into this new era of how life has been so impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but also what opportunities it has brought forward to us. So that gives me an inspiration. It also makes me a little nervous to see what happens, but excited at the same time.

Austin Hattox: Yeah, I agree. I think it's inspiring how there's definitely some stress in the short term, but through stress you grow and things adapt and change and you just figure out how best to pull together and move forward and continue with the mission.

Kara Kusunoki: And I think there's something around disrupting certain practices that have already been in place for a long time, just because that's the way it is. And we're seeing that that's not the way things need to be. And embracing that and being ready and challenging one another to really think about it differently, I think is part of the process. And I sure hope that when the pandemic and everything starts to subside, that we aren't just going to go back to the way things were. I see a lot of opportunity there to do better, to do more.

Austin Hattox: Where do you see Read To Me in five years?

Kara Kusunoki: We will have been in existence for about 30 years by then, five years from now. And I think our hope is that we are serving Hawaii's communities with the greatest need. That by then we will have seen more and more impact of the work that we do in our communities that we serve and for our families. And I think that increased partnerships across the way with other organizations is the way that we'd like to see ourselves go. So that we are approaching childhood wellness as not just health, as not just mental or physical health, but also looking at academic growth, the bonding between parents and child, and just the different pieces that I think we don't always have the space to discuss.

Kara Kusunoki: We're always concentrating on one part of wellness when we think about children. And sometimes, in our case, the early years of the organization was around focusing on academic development and growth. And now we're finding that books have a way of finding themselves into the soul and spirit and the mind and the body of a child. And so really taking advantage of that and working with other nonprofits and other like-minded entities to make that change holistically, I think is where we would like to go.

Austin Hattox: I want to say, I love that framing of childhood wellness as more of like a holistic view, rather than, like you said, focusing on the academic aspect only. If you could go back in time, before you got involved with Read To Me, what would you tell yourself?

Kara Kusunoki: I think that the best advice that I've ever received and still applies today, and I could always remind myself more of this, is to stop and listen, and then to listen and reflect. And I think that's so important because there are so many leaders and people who have made tremendous gains and impacts on our communities. And I think it's so important to stop and listen to what others have to say, the learnings that they bring forward. And then just the opportunity to stop and reflect, I think is the second part of that. What will we do with that information that we listen to? How will we further the impact that we want to see in this world? And I think that that's something that is an important reminder to me that I could do better every day through my [inaudible 00:25:53]. It's just to stop, listen and reflect.

Austin Hattox: Do you have any advice to new graduates who might want to get involved in a nonprofit space?

Kara Kusunoki: Well, I was a graduate during the last recession. I was a college graduate during the last recession, which I think impacted and colored the way that I view the world. I would say that for college and high school graduates who are looking for a way to give back to nonprofits, I think just reaching out to nonprofit that has a mission that you agree with and just asking them if there are volunteer opportunities, are there ways that you can serve to further their mission, I think would be helpful. I don't think there's any need to feel like you don't bring enough to the table because nonprofit work can certainly bring you the experiences and help you to hone your skills in ways that other jobs and other sectors might not be able to.

Kara Kusunoki: And so I really think that there is a huge need in the community for more support, more volunteerism. Even if you don't feel like you have all of the skills that they're looking for, just contact them, reach out to them. I know that almost any nonprofit at this point is looking for ways to engage more volunteers.

Austin Hattox: Excellent. And do you have any last minute thoughts you'd like to share with our listeners?

Kara Kusunoki: I just want to thank you, Austin, for creating the space for nonprofits to have a segment where they can share more about their work. I know that the phrase, we're in this together, comes up a lot, but I think that for nonprofits, we really are looking for ways to be in this together, while figuring out how to build our own ships in the meantime. And I think that this conversation is so valuable to the community. So just thank you very much, Austin. We really appreciate all that you do.

Austin Hattox: I appreciate you taking the time to hop on the show and share some of the stuff that you guys are working on. This has been a cool conversation.

Kara Kusunoki: Thanks again.

Austin Hattox: So if our listeners wanted to find out more about Read To Me or connect with you guys or support you guys, where would be the best place to look online?

Kara Kusunoki: I think the best place to find Read To Me International is our website. So our website URL is www.readtomeintl.org. And that is where you can get our links to our social media sites, as well as our donation button on there. Our read aloud resources, really that's the hub of where we go to update anything that we have that we think might be useful to the community.

Austin Hattox: Awesome. All right. Thanks so much, Kara.

Kara Kusunoki: Thanks Austin.
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