Great Grandmother Embraces Second Chance to Spread the Magic of Stories

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MandaLee Johns reads to a child in the Charlton County Health Dept.


Reading to her four young children in the 1950s wasn’t an option for MandaLee Johns. “Back then most people didn’t have books in their homes,” said the 82-year-old Folkston resident, who has worked part time in the Charlton County Health Department for the past three years through the Experience Works program. “We just couldn’t afford them at the time.”

Sadly, families in Charlton County are in the same predicament today.  “Many of our kids are starting kindergarten with a serious literacy gap, because there are not a lot of print materials in their homes,” said Barbara Hannaford, curriculum director for the county’s schools.  “Unfortunately, reading is not happening in many of our students’ homes.”

Affordability, access, and an understanding of the importance of reading are just a few of the challenges keeping children from enjoying books in the home. And research continues to show that the adverse social, developmental, and educational impact is significant. 

A retired substitute high-school teacher—who also has worked for the Board of Education and public library—Johns is well aware of the importance of reading. “I wish I had books to read to my children,” she said. “My grandchildren and nieces and nephews have been read to and it does make a difference.” While Johns didn’t have the opportunity with her own children, she is making that difference for other children through the Health Department’s reading initiative.

When parents come to the Health Department with more than one child to see the nurse, Johns will take siblings to a separate room and engage them in a story.

Thanks to an investment from the Blank Family Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Health Department recently purchased nearly 250 books geared for children from birth to age 10. Children are welcome to not only enjoy a book while they’re at the Health Department, but are given a book to take home with them.

“Miss MandaLee is modeling behavior,” said Carla Rodeffer, coordinator of the Charlton County Family Connection Collaborative, which initiated the book program. “If parents see her reading to their children, we hope they will read to their children when they get home.”

Johns may not have had the opportunity to read to her own children, but the grandmother of 10 and great-grandmother of 21 has had her share of reading time with youngsters, and has embraced this new aspect of her job.

“Sometimes you keep the child’s attention and sometimes you can’t,” she said, “But I always put expression into the story when I read, and I think they enjoy it.”

Diana St. Lifer is a professional writer with more than 25 years’ experience. She holds a bachelor’s degree in communications, a post-B.A. certificate in child advocacy, and is a certified professional life coach who specializes in teen and adolescent issues.

Some may think the Get Georgia Reading Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s expectation to get every child in the state on a path to reading proficiency by third grade by 2020 is too ambitious. But one look at the efforts Charlton County Family Connection is making and it’s easy to see that—with the work of dedicated partners and focused strategies—that expectation is well within reach.
Read “Charlton County Strives to Get More Books  in the Hands of Parents and Children.”

Low birthweight, childhood obesity, and a literacy gap are serious threats to the well-being of Georgia’s families and children. Recognizing the impact these pressing issues have on the state’s health, safety, and ability to prosper, Georgia Family Connection Partnership has launched three initiatives dedicated to developing and implementing strategies that address these key indicators.
Read “Eleven Family Connection Collaboratives Team Up to Tackle Key Indicators of Child and Family Well-Being.”