Hundreds of Rio Grande Valley children and their families walked away from the sixth annual FESTIBA (Festival of International Books and Arts) Community Day at The University of Texas-Pan American April 2 with memories of a day filled with fun, food, art and entertainment.
They also left with a free book and an important message of what reading and literacy can mean for their future.
"You won't be able to graduate from college unless you learn to read and understand," said UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen to a large group of children who had gathered in the Reading Is Fundamental (RIF)tent at the festival to hear him read a book.
A partner with FESTIBA for the past four years, RIF is the largest nonprofit literacy advocacy organization nationwide and through its programs locally has distributed close to a million free books to Rio Grande Valley school children. In their FESTIBA tent, RIF offered hands-on activities for children and story-telling and invited Nelsen to take a turn reading a bilingual book to students.
Before he read the children's book "Thanks/Gracias," in both English and Spanish, Nelsen asked the crowd of children how many were going to college. Hands flew into the air.
"If you go to college you will make a million dollars more than if you don't go to college. Do you want to make a million dollars?" he asked. The children's response: a resounding yes.
Leach said RIF and literacy nationwide has had a tireless advocate in South Texas U.S. Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (TX-15), an early supporter of FESTIBA and a co-founder of the South Texas Literacy Coalition, a clearinghouse for literacy providers Valleywide and a partner with RIF in community book distributions and other programs to advance reading and education.
"Hinojosa has helped us grow our presence here in the Valley," Leach said.
Leach said RIF targets children from birth to age 8 because research now shows that reading levels of students starting in fourth grade help determine future academic success.
"We encourage parents and other professionals who we work with that the earlier children can get their hands on books and have knowledge and enjoyment of books, the better," he said. "From the first day you come home from the hospital, children should hear you reading ... parents should make reading, make literacy a part of everyday life."
Leach said it is a "treat" to come to South Texas for FESTIBA.
"It is incredible to see how many parents are out here and how much the community gets behind an activity event like FESTIBA and the whole campaign on literacy," he said.
"RIF is not just giving books. It is about building the culture of literacy. Having that and developing that in communities is so very important," he said.
During the event, children also had the opportunity to build a book with volunteers from the College of Education and Kappa Delta Pi or participate in a mini-soccer training camp with students from UTPA's Student Association for Medical Spanish and the Association of Future Teachers of Spanish who also read and gave children a free book from the Arte Publico Press. Little ones also received a book on kid fitness and were able to hear themselves be broadcast while reading at a booth sponsored by Kidiatric Therapy Services. Representatives from the Pharr Literacy Project and Cultural Arts Center also touted their services and their upcoming play "Pat & Lyndon". Visitors were able to buy used books at a sale to benefit the UTPA Alumni Association for student scholarships and to view a Water Works exhibit in the Visitors Center. The Open Easel: UTPA's 2011 Art Department Student Colloquium display highlighted student artwork. Stage performances featured local bands offering different genres of music as well as a Mariachi concert by Walt Disney World's Mariachi Cobre and UTPA's own Mariachi Aztlan.
Alma Cantu from Hidalgo, Texas, brought her daughter Alma Paola, 6, and her nephew Luis Gerardo, 7, to FESTIBA's Community Day where they were able to hear Nelsen's reading of the book in the RIF tent.
Cantu said she reads to her daughter every night and thought FESTIBA was a good event for kids to attend.
"They need to know how to read. They need to know how to put commas and periods into sentences. They need to know how to learn more," she said.
Besides the food being sold during FESTIBA by UTPA student organizations, Luis said he also liked his new book. "I think I'd like to read it," he said.
Dr. Ida Acuña, South Texas Literacy Coalition director, wore a shirt with the slogan "Readers are Leaders" while working in the RIF tent. She said FESTIBA not only promotes early reading and how that connects with academic achievement but also the culture of graduating high school and going to college by opening its campus to the community.
"I know that parents are going to leave here saying 'I went onto campus and my child is going to go there one day,'" Acuña said.
For highlights of FESTIBA Community Day and other activities during FESTIBA Week, visit FESTIBA's photo gallery.