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Queens Community House launches family literacy initiative

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Queens Community House Chief Strategies Officer, Dennis Redmond, illustrates the series of events that made it possible for us to provide critically-needed family literacy initiatives to thousands of Queens families. A warm and inspiring story, just in time for the holidays.

Queens settlement house launches family literacy initiative thanks to a local volunteer, a U.S. Treasury Secretary, and a private equity firm

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November 26, 2019 - Almost 20 years ago, Rebecca Lew came into Queens Community House (QCH) to take a free computer class. Rebecca came to QCH because learning to use computers had been hard for her and, although middle-aged, she wanted “to keep up with the times.” I taught that computer class, and very much enjoyed getting to know her. Her self-deprecating sense of humor, her kindness, and her openness to learning charmed me and many others in our class. Once the course had ended, Rebecca returned as a volunteer assistant for the next cohort. She openly laughed about her own very-real struggle with computers, which helped to relieve the anxiety of the incoming students.

Over the years, Rebecca and I would occasionally bump into each other around the neighborhood and catch up. She still grappled with computers, she would tell me, but was undeterred and continued to take classes. In the summer of 2017, I ran into her outside our Forest Hills Community Center and we started to chat. She said something then that surprised me: “I hear you want to honor my brother.” It was only then that I grasped her connection to Jacob Lew, the former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Obama, whom we had recently approached as a potential gala honoree. Rebecca encouraged her brother to accept the honor, and, when he did, came by our office to share details with us of their childhood in Forest Hills. She spoke glowingly of their family’s apartment as “a home floor to ceiling with books.” A love of reading, instilled in her as a child, continued throughout Rebecca’s life, and was expressed through her own poetry and through the gifts of books she bestowed on her nieces and nephews as they grew up. Rebecca was excited at the time to reconnect with QCH, and arranged to begin volunteering with us as a Friendly Visitor to homebound seniors (another one of her passions). Unfortunately, she passed away unexpectedly in November 2018, just a week before her volunteer work was to start.

As a settlement house, QCH has been providing after school enrichment programs for elementary-age children since 1976. Our staff work hard to improve our children’s success in school, but their influence is limited to just a few hours a week. Again and again, research has shown that early literacy development is a strong predictor of a child’s future academic success, and, conversely, that those who begin their early school experience without strong reading skills are more likely to struggle and drop out of school later on. That is why educators have stressed the importance of family literacy: creating a home environment that encourages literacy, connects reading and writing to a child’s interests, and makes learning fun. We knew that we would have deeper impact on our children’s success if we could give family members the tools they needed to engage in and support their children’s literacy development.

Now, thanks to generous support from Jacob Lew and his current employer, the private equity firm Lindsay Goldberg, we are pleased to be celebrating Rebecca’s life and advancing our work with families through the launching of the Rebecca Lew Family Literacy Initiative. This month we hired a Literacy Specialist who will oversee an ambitious two-year project to train our staff and embed the family literacy model within each of QCH’s 14 after school programs. When Secretary Lew approached us earlier this year about making a gift, we all agreed it was the perfect way to honor Rebecca’s memory. Her passion for reading and writing, which she attributes to her parents, will now live on through this initiative, helping other parents to instill in their children a lifelong love of learning.

Queens Community House (QCH) is a multi-service settlement house serving more than 25,000 children, youth, adults and older adults every year. Our mission is to provide individuals and families with the tools to enrich their lives and build healthy, inclusive communities. Through a broad network of programs operating out of 32 sites in 14 neighborhoods, we offer Queens residents a needed support system at every stage of life, helping them to develop the knowledge, confidence and skills to change their lives for the better and become active participants in their larger community.

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