Rainbow Readers was a concept that emerged from a Family Action Centre project called Families Learning and Growing (FLAG).
The Family Action Centre is an independent organisation within the University of Newcastle. It is a multidisciplinary organisation with a vision of ‘A Truly Civil Society’ and a belief that ‘Family Wellbeing is a Cornerstone of Healthy Communities’. More information about The Family Action Centre can be found at http://www.newcastle.edu.au/research-centre/fac/
The FLAG Project came about as a result of a community consultation held with Hamilton South Estate residents in October 2005. Community members expressed concern about the future of the children residing on the estate. General agreement among community members present at the consultation was that increasing educational opportunities for children living on the estate would be their best chance at a good chance in succeeding through life.
Using that community insight, a proposal was put together by staff of the Family Action Centre, and funding sought. A year later, in late 2006 the FLAG Project was funded under Department of Community Services (DoCS), through the Hunter Area Assistance Scheme (HAAS), and auspiced by Family Insight Incorporated. Delivery to the community was the responsibility of a Project Coordinator employed by the Family Action Centre to commence Feb 2006.
Set up as a parent mentoring program for interested families living in the Hamilton South Department of Housing estate, the FLAG Project offered families weekly contact with a volunteer for a 20 week period with the aim of identifying and increasing their children’s ongoing opportunities for learning. The FLAG model utilised the experience gained from the Family Action Centre’s Home-Start program which had, at that point, 18 years of Volunteer Home Visiting experience providing support to families with young children.
During the initial Volunteer Preparation Course, the FLAG volunteer participants identified a common interest in working with families living on Hamilton South Estate to increase children’s literacy by sharing the magic of books and making reading fun.
It was at this stage that more information was sought about the Doorstep Reading model (initially formulated by community worker, Ruth Moxey, in Cessnock - and then used in the initiative called ‘Stories in the Street’ in Raymond Terrace) incase that model could be appropriately adapted for the Hamilton South area. After considering the model, and speaking to workers who had used it, the group agreed that they could see the Doorstep Reading model working for them to disseminate their passion for books across the Hamilton South Department of Housing Estate. It was at this stage they opted to call themselves the ‘Rainbow Readers’, and the promotion of their Doorstep Reading program began…..
Timing they say, is everything, so we took the opportunity of launching the program in October 2007 to combine it with a celebration of Australia’s International Children’s Day. This involved partnering with others involved with the estate community. The event was promoted (through letterbox dropping and putting up posters) as a free International Children’s Day Breakfast hosted by NSW Housing to launch the Rainbow Readers program. It was held at a major thoroughfare point on the estate where parents and children congregate to use the traffic lights to cross the road to the local school.
A number of Rainbow Reader volunteers came along to chat to parents about the new program and take names and addresses of families interested in taking up the offer of the Rainbow Reader volunteers coming out for Storytime. Other Rainbow Reader volunteers read with families on a huge rug with big cushions.
A third group of Rainbow Reader volunteers ran a book competition where 25 books were on display and children could choose which one they would like to nominate to go in the draw for. The ‘Gardening Club’ provided zip-lock bags of freshly picked carrot and celery sticks for the kids to take for ‘fruit break’ at school. NSW Housing providing financial support and their assistance with putting out the main feature which was healthy breakfast of fruit salad cups, yoghurt, milk, water, juice, bananas wrapped in wholemeal bread, zucchini slice, vegetable and bacon slice. 27 children entered the book competition so by purchasing another few books we were able to ensure every child who entered received either the book they nominated, or one that was similar.
Despite really positive interest from families initially encountered at the launch breakfast, there was a long period of rapport building in the setting up of Rainbow Readers. There seemed to be a degree of distrust which perhaps had to do with the fact that the Rainbow Readers program was funded by DoCS (DoCS required that we state that on any flyers/posters/etc) and suspicion about why DoCS were paying for a program which sent volunteers out to asking to read with their family.
There was also speculation that perhaps families were tired of well-intended outsider intervention programs funded for short periods and then withdrawn.
However, this was all anticipated and volunteers in their training identified that it would be their reliability and visibility that would earn them, and the program, respect and facilitate their access to families.
So, out they went in pairs each Wednesday morning rain, hail or shine knocking on doors offering Storytime and giving families an opportunity to borrow books. On wet days, if there wasn’t anywhere dry enough to sit, they would leave a wet weather activity (such as colouring in pencils or crayons and a stencil) for families, and offer books to borrow.
It took time, but that persistence did lead to a real change in the perception of the Rainbow Readers and before long kids were careering down stairwells and tumbling out of townhouses with their books to swap over, and spilling onto the colourful Rainbow Readers rug for Storytime.
Rainbow Readers was offered as a complimentary program to the FLAG Volunteer Home Visiting Project. This meant that whether or not a family were linked with a FLAG Volunteer Home Visitor, they could engage with Rainbow Readers and have RR Volunteers visit for Storytime on their front doorstep, or they could join in for group reading with other families from their neighbourhood.
Interestingly, while it was the FLAG Project that was set up in response to resident’s concerns at the community consultation, it was the Rainbow Readers program that families came to embrace far, far more enthusiastically than the original FLAG Project.
Perhaps this can be attributed to the lapse in time between the consultation and the commencement of the FLAG project. Or maybe there was a serious underestimation of how guarded the Hamilton South estate community would be about having a FLAG Volunteer Home Visitor enter their home to work with them towards increased educational opportunities for their child. For some families perhaps the role of a Volunteer Home Visitor was too foreign a concept for to grasp and see as an attractive option. For others in the Hamilton South community, maybe the negative connotations around DoCS outweighed the positive connotations and kept families away who would otherwise have put their hand up to be involved.
We won’t ever know exactly why FLAG was not embraced by families in Hamilton South as was anticipated. Fortunately though, Rainbow Readers came to being and was able to assist families living on the estate to increase the educational opportunities of their children. The difference turned out to be that Rainbow Readers primarily read with 0-5 year olds, whereas it was 0-12 year olds that FLAG initially set out to focus on.
The Rainbow Reader years have been coloured by many fun family events Celebrations for International Children’s Day, Australia Day, June Storms, and Halloween. These opportunities to build rapport with families were invaluable in further connecting volunteers with families as well as connecting families with each other. The number of times in conversation that families have positively referred back to the events demonstrates how highly families valued them.
Positive family-friendly themed events interspersed through the Doorstep Reading year were hard work, but over time volunteers and families took on more and more responsibility for contributing to the events and that made it easier to hold them more frequently. School holidays proved to be particularly popular, especially towards the end of the school holidays when parents were starting to look for activities to occupy their bored school aged children.
While it was initially thought that the school aged children would choose to have very little to do with the Rainbow Readers, the opposite proved to be the case. From the outset, at that first International Children’s Day Rainbow Readers launch breakfast, older children were keen to be a part of the program. They entered the book competition, and while there were books included to cater for children aged 0-12 – a number of the older children entered hoping to win books for their younger siblings.
The following week it came time for us to get the 30 book prizes to the children and the older children again jumped in with details of how to contact each family (which teacher’s class they were in at school, who their siblings were, when they would be back from being away). So it really came as no surprise to us when during the school holidays older siblings would often bring their younger brothers and sisters outside, sit them on their lap, read to them and encourage them to borrow more books. This was encouraged by the volunteers who sat back and revelled in what was taking place. They enjoyed seeing the younger children beaming at being read to and made a fuss of by their sibling. One volunteer made the insightful observation of how valuable this sibling reading is. He said he could see it re-inforcing for the younger ones that reading must be an important activity if it was something their older sister or brother could do, and something which their older sister/brother was proud of being able to do.
It was exciting times for all involved realising that, for children who had not been read to prior to the Rainbow Readers visiting, a whole new world had opened up. Not only were the Rainbow Readers showing up to read to them, but there were all these books they could choose from each week to borrow and wave in the face of siblings and parents asking to be read to.