Amidst ongoing discussions of progress, growth and economic development in Chatham County, one topic rarely mentioned as a potential obstacle is that of illiteracy.
However, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, Chatham County's illiteracy rate remained near 15% as of 2003, and adults with low level reading skills could be as many as one in four in the state. The effect of dealing with literacy issues in the workforce is estimated to cost Georgia businesses upwards of $7 billion a year by some estimates.
The Ferst Foundation, a Georgia-based non-profit organization that branched out into Chatham County about a year ago, is dedicated to improving literacy by attacking the root of the problem, helping pre-school age children develop a love of reading without any added expense to parents. In fact, it almost sounds too good to be true: They want to mail age-appropriate books to children ages 0-5 every month for free.
Founded in 1999 by Robin Ferst, the group has already helped deliver over 1.5 million books to pre-school age kids in nearly 70 communities throughout the state.
The organization expanded its reach into Chatham County last summer innocently enough through a lemonade stand.
SCAD professor Ashley Gaddy, who is leads the local Ferst Community Action Team here, discovered the foundation after her son expressed interest in having a lemonade stand, which she saw as "a good lesson in economics and community responsibility for him," she explains. She and her husband said he should contribute the proceeds to a charity, and began a search on the internet for an organization that dealt with something to which he could relate.
"My son reads like crazy, so it just seemed like a natural fit," she says. "We did the lemonade stand for the Ferst Foundation, and then stayed active with the group ever since."
Now Gaddy is on a quest to raise the money necessary to enroll over 17,000 children in Chatham County younger than age 5 in the program with a unique fundraising concept, a two-week online auction.
Recognizing that time and money are two things that many people are short on during a recession, Gaddy hopes that hosting it online, and accessible at any hour, will leave people who might not have otherwise been able to donate.
"We get invited to a lot of fundraising events and auctions and there's always a cover charge, you pay to get in and you pay to bid on things, but money is so tight for everyone right now that I didn't want it to be exlusive sort of auction," Gaddy says. "You don't have to come to a specific event on a specific day, you can bid from your sofa at two in the morning."
The other advantage to the online auction, which will be run through eBay along with a blog at ferstthingsfirst.wordpress.com, is that it allows for a wider range of items to be sold for the benefit.
"We're accepting anything and everything in terms of donations," says Gaddy, "Used clothing that's in good shape, the lamp in the corner that you never really liked. We'll take anything."
The auction begins on October 1 and runs through October 14, but items up for auction, which ranges from vacation packages to household goods can be previewed at the blog.
For more information on the Ferst Foundation or how to register your child, visit www.ferstfoundation.org. And for more information on how to donate items to the auction or how to get involved locally, call Ashley Gaddy, 912.507.6721.