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Charleston County First Steps and BEGIN WITH BOOKS

The Gold Standard in Partnership --

Since 1999,  Charleston County First Steps (CCFS)  has been helping disadvantaged children be healthier and better prepared to start school.  They do this through improving access to quality childcare, and by supporting, educating and advocating for parents.  Their two primary programs are:

  • The Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership (EHS-CCP), a federally-funded grant program that is intended to ensure private child development centers deliver quality childcare through Early Head Start services to low-income families with children ages 6 weeks to 3 years.
  • Parents as Teachers (PAT), weekly home visits conducted by certified Parent Educators/Advocates to meet the needs of low-income families with children prenatal through 5 years old.   

Charleston County First Steps has been a strong supporter of BEGIN WITH BOOKS (BWB) since its inception over 10 years ago.  However, with the arrival of Program Manager Leah Crosby four years ago, the partnership has been cemented even further.  Now both organizations regard the other as “the gold standard” in collaboration.  

A Certified Speech-Language Pathologist by background, Crosby has made early literacy and establishing a love of reading a priority in CCFS programs.  "It’s really where my heart is," she confides.  She recognizes the impact an early exposure to books can make on the trajectory of a child’s life and regards CCFS and BWB a natural fit.  

Wanting to ensure that as many families as possible be enrolled in BWB, she and her team implemented an opt-out option in 2019 to children in the EHS-CCP program.  It was then expanded to the PAT program this past program year to reach children between three and five years of age.  All BWB-eligible children in CCFS programs are now automatically enrolled unless a parent chooses to opt out.  Not surprisingly, no parent has ever chosen to do so. 

Enrolled children receive high-quality, age-appropriate books from Dolly Parton's Imagination Library (DPIL) in the mail every single month until their fifth birthday.  "Early literacy is such a critical part of educating the whole child," says Crosby, so being able to provide an in-home library opportunity to these families is an enormous benefit for CCFS. 

Closing the million word gap

Building a strong language foundation and giving low-income children the literacy skills necessary to successfully start kindergarten is a key goal for CCFS.  That is why they are committed to closing the million word gap between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.  Research shows that by age three, children raised in more affluent homes have, on average, several million more words than children raised in poverty.  The quantity and quality of conversations directed to them, as well as exposure to books and reading, account for this gap. 

Children enrolled in BWB as young as 6 weeks of age, have the opportunity of building a 60-book home library by the time they are five years old.  Getting this many books into low-income homes and encouraging parents to read aloud daily to their youngest children is a significant step towards closing this gap.

BEGIN WITH BOOKS is helping to build libraries in childcare centers 

Through its Little Library Initiative, BWB provides book drops of Imagination Library titles, selected to meet age requirements of current CCFS families.  These books are used in a variety of ways.  Most of the books are used to build libraries in childcare centers for story-time and literacy activities.  Others are used for professional development.  CCFS strives to ensure that their Parent Educators and staff understand the importance of early literacy and how to inspire parents to develop pre-reading skills with their young children. 

Crosby is confident knowing that these books have been selected for inclusion in DPIL by a panel of early childhood literacy experts.  It takes the guesswork out of book selection for her and her team.  It also gives them a resource library of familiar books to draw from when addressing particular issues a child in their program may be experiencing.  For example, if a child is having trouble sleeping, or experiencing separation anxiety, they have just the right book on hand to start conversations with a parent and begin working together to find solutions. Yet another great benefit of the collaboration with BWB.

Spaces are still available in Charleston County First Steps programs 

The good news is that spaces are still available in Charleston County First Steps center-based Early Head Start Programs (EHS-CCP), as well as in the Parent As Teacher (PAT) home-based program.  These programs help ensure children are ready for kindergarten, putting them on a better path for academic success.  And eligible children are automatically enrolled in BWB simply by being in one of these programs.  The strong focus on reading readiness, along with receiving new books in the mail, means children are more likely to be reading at grade level by grade 3 - a strong predictor of better school and life outcomes.  Click here to learn more about these programs and apply on-line. 

Crosby is particularly excited about a new initiative by the South Carolina First Steps state office that will ensure even more children have access to quality childcare and education opportunities.  If any child in a household qualifies for free access in a private pre-kindergarten program (4K), each and every child in that household, regardless of relation or family income status, qualifies for either child care or after school care up to age 12. 

BEGIN WITH BOOKS (BWB) is the Charleston County (SC) affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination  Library, a global book-gifting program that sends monthly books by mail to babies and young children.  Over 4,900 books per month are shipped to the homes of enrolled babies, toddlers and preschoolers.   The Imagination Library 2021 Book List by age group can be found here. 

-- Caron Bell, PhD, Early Childhood Development, and volunteer 


  1. BEGIN WITH BOOKS and First Steps - what a great partnership!


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