Legacy of kindness lives on

I came for an interview eight years ago bearing a grocery bag of books my children had long outgrown for a little girl with a love of reading.

It was at the Joy Junction homeless shelter, and I can still remember the 6-year-old’s eyes widening and her smile spreading, revealing the recent loss of a front baby tooth, when she saw what was in the bag.

I can still remember her joyful squeal as she reached in for a book, clambered into her mother’s arms and drifted away into whatever world that book took her.

Alison Valencia, 4, is one of the thousands of Head Start program participants to receive the book “Kindness Starts with You” by Jacquelyn Stagg, as part of a partnership between Youth Development Inc. and the Jennifer Riordan Foundation. Alison holds her book at the Arroyos del Norte Head Start in Arroyo Seco. (Courtesy of Kerr Adams, YDI Communications Manager)

My interview with her was over at that point. She was too busy reading.

But I could still interview her parents, who told me how they and their two young daughters had come to be homeless, how they had lost everything – including their daughters, then ages 2 and 1 – because of their meth addiction.

Books, the girls’ mother told me, helped her oldest daughter escape the harshness of their lives. It helped develop language, listening and writing skills, engaged her creativity. It taught her things, took her to faraway places, told her that a bigger, better world awaited her.

Those who work with young children know the value of books. The single most significant factor influencing a child’s educational success is an early introduction to books and being read to at home, according to the National Commission on Reading.

But in some homes, books are luxuries, oddities. In those magical years when a child’s cognitive processes are developing rapidly, a lack of access to books is like keeping some pages of the brain blank.

Thanks to a partnership between Youth Development and the Jennifer Riordan Foundation, some of those homes will be receiving a book selected not just to instill a love of reading in a child, but also to continue Riordan’s legacy of kindness, caring and sharing.

Dr. Diego Gallegos, CEO of Youth Development Inc., shows children at a Head Start center the book that they and their families will be receiving. (Courtesy of Kerr Adams, YDI Communications Manager)

The partnership comes as YDI celebrates its 50th year of providing preschool and child care, prenatal care, alternative education, job training employment assistance, mental and behavioral health services, homeless assistance, emergency housing, mentoring, family development services, family counseling services and supervised visitation across 16 counties in New Mexico – everything from Neutral Corner to Amistad Crisis Shelter.

Put another way, if it’s a program aimed at helping disadvantaged youth and families get a footing in a bigger, better world, chances are it’s a YDI program.

YDI operates 30 Head Start centers in Bernalillo County and northern New Mexico that provide free early childhood education, child care and family development services for children birth to age 5 – the magical years.

More than 1,100 copies of the book are being distributed to those children because of the foundation, which carries on the life’s work of Riordan, who championed the cause of kindness and caring before her death two years ago today (April 17, 2018) in a bizarre midflight accident.

The book seems one Riordan would have approved of because she lived it.

“The Jennifer Riordan Foundation had been looking for a book partner for a few months,” said her husband, Michael Riordan. “When YDI approached us wanting a book for younger kids, we stepped up the effort and found this great book “Kindness Starts with You” by Jacquelyn Stagg. We reached out to her with the project and she could not have been more supportive. We are all so excited to be part of these amazing acts of kindness.”

The book teaches how easy it is to show kindness – saying please and thank you to Mom, asking the school bus driver how his day is going, inviting a classmate alone in the cafeteria to sit with you, taking turns on a playground swing, etc.

On each page comes the reminder: “This is what I would want someone to do for me.”

That’s a pretty big lesson for the little ones – and for all of us.

When Manuel Casias, YDI’s vice president of development and annual giving, contacted me about the books and the partnership, I admit I didn’t think it was enough to make into a column.

But then I remembered that little girl in the homeless shelter, and she reminded me of the power of books.

The Riordans reminded me that kindness is the most powerful thing we can teach our children.

So, here we are.

That little girl, by the way, appears to be doing quite well, from what I’ve been able to sleuth. She’s 14 now and her parents have pulled themselves from the depths of their addictions, and now hold good jobs and provide what appears to be a good home for their daughters.

I hope it’s full of books.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

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