One book at a time: Savannah student’s literacy project helps develop children’s reading skills

Local News

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Over the past year, Savannah Arts Academy senior Kara Harper has made it her mission to share her love of reading with Chatham County babies and families, one book at a time.

The 17-year-old student started Book Barn Babies, her literacy outreach project, in 2018.

She accepts book donations from the community and even purchases some of them herself. 

Through the program, which primarily caters to families with children aged 5 and younger, Harper has been able to donate nearly 2,000 books to Memorial Health.

“She comes probably every two weeks and delivers me about three bags worth of books, so I think we’ve got at least a couple hundred in there!” said Memorial Health childcare specialist Trisha Nuttall.

Currently, Harper houses two red-and-white book barns in the hospital’s newborn intensive care unit (NICU) and in the pediatric unit, each stuffed with new and gently used books for parents to read to their little ones.

There’s not a whole lot I can do for her a lot of times, and I just love being able to read to her. The Book Barn being here makes that possible.”

Heather Cole, mother of baby in Memorial Health’s NICU

“It is one of the most rewarding things I could ever ask for, being able to see them enjoying the books,” Harper told News 3. 

“Even in some of the pediatric floors, I see little kids running up and grabbing books,” Harper said. “It just makes me feel so good inside that I’m able to see this project actually making a difference.”

The birth of Book Barn Babies

Harper tells News 3 that the inspiration behind the idea stemmed from a physical abnormality she had at birth, called macrodactyly.

“Mainly my entire life, people told me, ‘You’re not going to be able to do this, you won’t accomplish this,’” she said.

“My whole goal with this project is to be able to give these kids an opportunity to go out, read and get skills that they might not be able to have, especially babies born in the NICU, who do have a higher chance of having cognitive disabilities,” she said.

(Image courtesy of Kara Harper)

Harper added that she wants to give families the opportunity to grow and be able to read to their babies, which gives the children a chance to go and prove everyone wrong — just like Harper herself has done.

She and her father worked together to build the barns.

Harper told News 3 that she loves farm animals, having grown up near a farm, and wanted to work that into her project.

“Kids want to open up the barn doors, look inside, see what’s in there, and some of the books are actually based off of farm animals, so they get a little bit of that experience, as well,” she said.

Benefits of early reading 

“There’s lots of research around reading to your baby from day one,” Nuttall told News 3. “It does help with their brain development and building those early literacy skills.”

For neonatal families, it’s an important bonding opportunity to share with their children who have yet to go home for the first time. 

(Image courtesy of Kara Harper)

Many of the babies have been in neonatal care for weeks or even months, in some cases.

“It’s like that special time where it’s just them and their child, and they get to share a special story with them,” Nuttall said.

The Book Barn, which is completely free, allows families to take more than one book, and they don’t have to return them.

“We really want to build up that child’s library from day one,” Nuttall said.

These book barns, created by Harper and her father, house dozens of books for young children to enjoy. (Image courtesy of Kara Harper)

“It’s promoting something that’s going to help their child long term and with their education in the future.”

Changing lives, one book at a time

Harper told News 3 that she’s been thrilled with the response she’s received. 

“I’ve gotten such amazing feedback,” she said.

Families often send photos to her Book Barn Babies Facebook page of them reading books from the barn to their kids, or sometimes with children reading by themselves.

Heather Cole is one of those moms.

Cole, a mother whose baby girl has been in the NICU for 45 days, says she loves having the Book Barn in the hospital.

“The Book Barn has been a huge blessing to us,” Cole said.

“It makes me feel more like her mom,” Cole told News 3 while in the NICU, a place she frequents quite often these days to spend precious moments with her little one.

Heather Cole reads a story from the Book Barn to her daughter in Memorial Health’s NICU.

Cole’s daughter was born prematurely at 28 weeks, and they’re working on teaching her to eat.

“There’s not a whole lot I can do for her a lot of times, and that’s something I know I’m helping her brain develop, and it’s something that I did with my other son, and I just love being able to read to her,” she said .”The Book Barn being here makes that possible.”

Plans for the future

As Harper prepares for life after high school, she told News 3 that she hopes to continue Book Barn Babies whether she attends college locally or in another part of Georgia.

So far, the aspiring chemistry major already has an acceptance letter from Georgia Southern University.

In the meantime, Harper is focusing on giving away as many books as she can.

“Right now, it is kind of confined to [Memorial Health], but I’m hoping to expand, give books out to local organizations as much as possible,” Harper said.

“If I could ask anybody else to go out and make a difference, be able to touch people, even though it may just be a small piece of a big puzzle, it really does change your perspective of the world and how we all fit into it,” she said.

For anyone interested in donating books to Book Barn Babies, Harper will gladly accept new or gently used books, but no monetary donations.

She can be reached through her Book Barn Babies Facebook page or by email at bookbarnbabies@gmail.com.

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