Pat Simons’s mother, an immigrant from Poland, went to college when few women did so, and her father was always “a great reader,” so growing up in El Paso, Simons well understood the value of education and the pleasure of reading. Simons has passed on her love of reading—and fostered literacy skills in tens of thousands of children in the metropolitan area—through Ready Readers, a nonprofit program she founded with three friends in 1997.
The statistics alone make for compelling reading: In the current school year, 52,000 new children’s books have been handed out to underprivileged youngsters. A total of 331,950 books have been distributed since the program began. As of March, 472 volunteers were reading each week to 7,718 children in 469 classrooms located in 128 early childhood centers.
“That makes me smile,” Simons said. “These little kids all got a better start.”
The importance of the “better start” that Simons speaks of cannot be underestimated. While laying the groundwork for Ready Readers, Simons learned that most children who enter kindergarten who have not been read to or have not had access to books will have no desire to read. Instead, these children will see reading as a chore.
“The average child in a low-income family has four books,” Simons said. “That’s why so many children living in poverty do not learn how to read—it’s not modeled at home. Most people in jail come from poverty, and have low literacy skills. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons looks at third-grade reading scores as one way to determine how many beds they will need in prisons in the future.”
Simons first came to St. Louis after college, moving here with her husband so he could attend medical school. The couple left in 1967 and then returned in 1973. When Simons, a lawyer with a general civil practice, approached retirement in 1997, she wanted to do something for the community, something for children with few resources.
“Because of my husband’s work, I was familiar with a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics that said for children to become literate, they must be read to aloud on a regular basis and they must have easy access to books,” Simons said. “Pediatricians were urged to prescribe reading as if it were a medication, and to encourage parents to read to their children.”
Along with Lesley Wandling, Diane Knapp and Melissa Schapiro, who was a high school student at the time, Simons investigated available literacy programs for young children. “I was a teacher before I was a lawyer, and I wanted a program where a reader would bond with children while reading to them every week,” Simons said. “I also wanted to give the children books to take home, books that had been read to them, books that meant something to them.”
The project started out as a branch of a national literacy organization. “We looked in the phone book for programs and preschools, and we started with the Head Start program in University City. Then we expanded to a children’s center and a Head Start program in Maplewood,” Simons said. They had no money for books, so the three scoured garage sales. They also connected with a program called First Book, which donates children’s books to organizations.
The national organization eventually switched its focus to tutoring, so in September 1999, Simons and her friends incorporated as Ready Readers. They decided then they wanted more control over the books they passed on to children. “We wanted to give out ‘The Little Engine That Could,’ ‘Corduroy’ and ‘Goodnight, Moon’—books that children would want to look at over and over,” Simons said. They sought donations for new books or funds to buy them.
Simons pointed out that a number of people helped behind the scenes as the organization grew. Karen and Phil Berger were there from the beginning, she said, donating their time, desks, computers and space to store books. Their son, David, a graphic designer, also helped. “I had the good fortune to hire Suzanne Michel as assistant director, and we never would have succeeded without Sandy Jaffe and Susan Goldberg on the board,” Simons said. “Sandy, who was at The Booksource, was our first major donor and Susan spearheaded our major fund-raising events each year.”
For 13 years, Simons served as executive director of Ready Readers. During that time, the program was honored with numerous civic and regional awards. “When I got to 65, I realized it was not just a project anymore, but a real business, a big business with an annual budget of $300,000,” said Simons. “What Ready Readers needed was somebody younger, somebody with more energy, somebody who really enjoyed being out and about, meeting people and raising money.”
Three years ago, the board hired Lisa Greening as executive director. “Pat Simons taught me everything—she is a wonderful woman,” said Greening, a former co-owner of Left Bank Books and a former teacher. “When I first learned about Ready Readers in 2003, I looked at the mission and I knew it was exactly right. Young children need to be inspired by hearing quality books read aloud. Pat took on a project and turned it into an organization that fulfills its mission.”
Until recently, Simons continued to work as a volunteer with Ready Readers, reading to children once a week. Right now she is taking a break. Simons said she is pleased that Ready Readers continues to grow and expand services. “There is a long way to go,” she said, “but it is wonderful to see it working.”
FAMILY: Married to Paul Simons, a pediatrician and assistant professor at Washington University School of Medicine; two grown sons and four grandchildren
OCCUPATION: Retired lawyer
FAVORITE PASTIMES: Writing poetry and short fiction