Paths in education can lead many places. While the final destination and exact route may be in flux at times, the starting point remains fixed.

Speaking to the impact of those formative years in early childhood, former director of the Harvey County Special Education cooperative Sherri Rawlins shared some of her own history as well as the future she is trying to promote locally—through literacy development initiatives—at Wednesday's installment of the Bethel College Life Enrichment series.

Entering Krehbiel Auditorium Wednesday morning, those in attendance were welcomed by an image of Rawlins holding a book as a young child, sitting with her father and 6-week-old brother. While many may have viewed it as a sweet family scene, Rawlins noted it has taken on much more meaning for her over the years.

"What I see is brain development. It's reading development starting," Rawlins said. "The connections, the wiring in our brain, is impacted by our social, emotional relationships and that impacts what happens later."

According to studies referenced by Rawlins, those relationships can influence everything from verbal/reading skills to proficiency in mathematics to executive functions (i.e. planning, following instructions, etc.). That starts with communication, as Rawlins said infants will pick up on things like rhythm, tone, inflection, etc. when their parents are talking and will have trouble learning in the midst of noise, whether it's from competing voices or environmental sounds.

Difference in economic backgrounds can also affect how much children develop as infants, as those from a professional family will hear 2,153 words per hour, 32 affirmatives per hour and five prohibitions per hour. Those numbers come from a study done in Kansas City, Kansas, which found that children from working class families or those living in poverty will hear significantly less words and affirmatives.

For working class families, those numbers drop to 1,251 words and 12 affirmatives per hour, with children from families in poverty hearing 616 words and only five affirmatives per hour. Additionally, studies show that 86 percent of words used by the age of 3 are derived from the parents' vocabulary. Those factors mean that not all students entering kindergarten may exit with the same skills (given the different starting points), but Rawlins and the Harvey County United Way are trying to level the playing field.

Rawlins serves as community impact chair for Harvey County United Way, an organization which has tackled childhood literacy head on through programs like KidFest and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

Entering its third year, KidFest is an event to which all families in the county with children under the age of 8 are invited, allowing non-profits to share information on their mission. Additionally, all those qualifying children who attend get to pick out a free book to keep as their own.

"We hope that we increase reading by getting books into homes and making it novel," Rawlins said.

Through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, children under the age of 5 can enroll and receive a book each month through the mail. The program (currently operating in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K.) exceeded local projections for enrollment within the first four months, with 600 children currently registered.

Once enrollees turn 5, they age out of the imagination library program, but Rawlins noted they would conceivably have 60 books in their personal library by that time. Having those resources is key in early childhood development because while listening to adults speak can influence young minds, books have even greater power.

"When we read to kids, we are exposing them to vocabulary greater than what we use on a regular basis," Rawlins said. "Exposing them to text exposes them to a whole new world of vocabulary."

In communication between two professional colleagues, Rawlins presented statistics that show 17 rare words are used per 1,000 words. However, in children's books there are 30.9 rare words per 1,000 and that number grows to 53.5 rare words per 1,000 in comic books. Using "Hansel and Gretel" as an example, Rawlins highlighted rare words that appear in text like famine, lazybones, glinting, kindling and more.

Reading and literacy can promote good habits (i.e. productivity) and if parents read to their children just 20 minutes a day that would give them 600 hours of reading exposure before entering kindergarten. While it helps learning development, Rawlins also highlighted the emotional benefits.

Going back to the discrepancy in backgrounds, Rawlins noted that the first book those enrolled in the imagination library receive is "The Little Engine That Could," which supporters hope starts a healthy relationship with reading that builds more success in the future given the protagonist's mantra of "I think I can."

"What a positive affirmation that is to hear every time this book is read for them," Rawlins said.

Books are offered free to local children through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, and the program is supported through donations. For more information on either literacy initiative, visit www.harveyunitedway.org.