By David Rogers. January 11, 2016. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Whether it is a handbook for being a superhero, learning about how to dress up a puppy in high style, discovering the Amazon rainforest, or flying along with a red-tailed hawk while wearing a magic beanie, children can learn to enjoy reading — and it has far-reaching consequences for the rest of their respective lives.
Except where noted, all photographic images courtesy of Operation Mama Gaye
In a day and age when OMG and XOXO may be the full extent of a child’s sentence construction as he or she texts a friend, Blowing Rock’s “Operation Mama Gaye” is a refreshing effort to capture kids’ respective imaginations early — and get them hooked on reading.
Adult literacy begins when he or she is but a child.
This is not whimsical folly. Today’s Information Age demands literacy as we are bombarded by textual documents, data and soundbites — “…using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential…”
But from 1992 to 2003, the last time the National Assessment of Adult Literacy was conducted, literacy among adults in the U.S. declined. With the proliferation of not just television, but also mobile devices such as smartphones and handheld tablets as society’s communication tools, the development of language skills has been short-sheeted.
Of course, an adult’s literacy begins when he or she is but a child.
It is now more than a decade old, but the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that 14% of North Carolina adults lack BASIC prose literacy skills, slightly better than the national average of 14.5%. The Reading Is Fundamental national non-profit organization estimates that 93 million adults in the U.S. read “…at or below the basic level needed to contribute successfully to society…” and that “…65% of fourth graders read at or below the basic level. As curriculum advances, these children will fall behind.”
While no child is likely to admit to reading in order to advance their language skills, a child that is inspired to read for fun is likely to develop those important life skills, grow with a more creative and vibrant imagination, and achieve more advanced analytical tools, according to education professionals.
Jerry Burns encouraged us to do something annually to honor our mother’s spirit of giving.
Enter: Operation Mama Gaye.
“This promotion of a child’s passion for reading is in loving remembrance of my mother, Gaye McDonald,” Operation Mama Gaye organizer Wendy Estes explained to Blowing Rock News on Tuesday. “She passed away on July 5, 2006, but not before achieving many of the goals on her ‘bucket list.’ One of her last goals was to provide a special Christmas for the children of the North Carolina National Guard’s 1450th Transportation Company unit, whose men and women were deployed in Iraq.
“While our mother had passed away,” Estes continued, “my sister (Kim Hartley) and I still wanted to make this goal happen for her, so we hosted a grand Christmas Party. The community was really generous with both Christmas gifts and money. Blowing Rock’s Cullie Tarleton played Santa Claus and handed out the gift’s to the National Guard kids. Because of the community’s generosity, we were also able to ship 75 Christmas presents to each of that unit’s soldiers in Iraq.”
But the story of giving in honor of their mother didn’t stop at Christmas for the McDonald sisters.
Their families simply didn’t have enough money.
“Jerry Burns, then editor of The Blowing Rocket,” Estes noted, “really encouraged us to something annually to honor our mother’s giving spirit. She was known far and wide in the community as ‘Mama Gaye,’ so after talking with former secretary at Blowing Rock School, Mary Lentz, we decided on ‘Operation Mama Gaye.’ She told us that there was a book fair coming up at school and that there were many students not able to participate because their families simply didn’t have the money.”
It proved an inspired conversation for Wendy Estes and Kim Hartley. “We knew instantly,” recalled Estes, “that this would be the perfect mission to honor our mother’s giving spirit, her love of children and how important it is for them to learn to enjoy reading at an early age. This, we felt, could make a difference in our community. Plus, for Kim and I, we have heartstrings very closely tied to Blowing Rock School because we both went there.”
In planning their campaign, Estes and Hartley leaned on words of inspiration they learned from their mother. “You do for one, you do for all,” said Estes, remembering Mama Gaye’s maternal wisdom.
“We felt it was important that the needful kids not stick out,” noted Estes. “We wanted it to be an even playground, so to speak, for them. So we decided on a campaign. Operation Mama Gaye, that gave books to all kids because nurturing a love of reading crosses all demographic boundary lines.
We wanted it to be an even playground.
“You know,” she added, “there is a stereotype with Blowing Rock, in general, and it has a lot to do with the seasonality of the community when we have so many folks who are relatively affluent here for as much as nine months of the year. Consequently, a lot of outsiders seem to think that if you live in Blowing Rock then you are either rich or middle class. This is so untrue. Many families are struggling just to put food on the table. There are many students receiving financial assistance or subsidies at Blowing Rock School. This is why, for example, the non-profit Blowing Rock CARES was so important when it first was formed at the school by Trish Kohlasch, Linda Laughter and Liz Tincher. It outgrew the school and has been relocated with the generosity of Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church, but it performs an increasingly vital role in the health of our community.”
Operation Mama Gaye, Estes reported, this year celebrates nine years of spreading kindness and the joy of reading. “We’ve given out almost 10,000 FREE books,” Estes smiled.
“Many people in Blowing Rock may not know it,” suggested Estes, “but we have some accomplished authors in our town and they have been so incredibly generous in supporting Operation Mama Gaye. Jonathan Graves, who is known locally as John Aldridge, has given his children’s book, ‘Isabella Propeller & The Magic Beanie’ to all first graders. A mother and daughter duo, Madeline and Summer Hays, gave their book, ‘Mrs. Gamble The Quirky Quail’ to all third graders.
“We are also blessed to be able to work as a team,” continued Estes, “with Scholastic Books. Every year except one they matched our gift and the other year they put in an awesome reading nook in the Blowing Rock School library.”
There is a stereotype about Blowing Rock that everyone is rich or middle class. That simply isn’t true.
In speaking about the 2016 edition of Operation Mama Gaye, Estes beamed, “We are excited that Judy Tolbert, the wife of late Blowing Rock Police Chief Owen Tolbert, will be baking her famous cinnamon rolls the first week of February, March and April. I will host a bidding on Facebook, so even if you don’t live in Blowing Rock or only live here part of the year, you can still take part. We will gladly take your rolls as a donation to Hospitality House, or anywhere else of your choosing within Blowing Rock and Boone.”
Anyone interested in helping Estes and Hartley continue their mother’s tradition of promoting literacy and the joy of reading among children via Operation Mama Gaye are encouraged to join their Facebook page: “In Loving Memory of Mama Gaye.” Here’s the link: CLICK HERE.
“Any amount of donation can make a huge difference,” Estes concluded in her interview with Blowing Rock News. “Most books cost us $10.00 each.”
And that’s less than a dollar a month.
“If someone gives a donation of $100 or more,” said Estes, “they become an OMG Angel and we will either have the individual’s name or their business name on our OMG Angel Wings during the OMG Book Fair Week.”
Donations (make checks payable to “Operation Mama Gaye”) or other communications about Operation Mama Gaye may be sent to:
Wendy Estes, 493 Skyland View Drive, Blowing Rock, NC 28605.