Part-time Kaua’i residents deliver dictionaries to all island third-graders

Because students need to read to succeed, and because they want to honor beloved family members who have passed on, a pair of part-time Kaua’i residents this school year presented each third-grader on the island his or her own dictionary.

And a pen to put marks next to words they know.

Not only did part-time Po’ipu residents Mary Gallagher and Dahmen Brown give each third-grader a dictionary and pen, they talked to nearly every one of them, at schools public and private, encouraging them to read aloud every day.

And they plan to do it all again next school year, delivering new dictionaries to the third-graders and popping into the fourth-grade classes to see how they’re doing.

“The future of Hawai’i rests on how well these kids are educated. We need to be able to hold kids here,” as now the brightest ones leave to attend Mainland colleges, and a high percentage of those never return for anything but vacations, said Brown, 65.

Counting presentations on Moloka’i and Lana’i, the couple passed out 8,000 dictionaries to Hawai’i students during the current school year.

“We want to give back,” said Gallagher, 57, who with husband Brown started Dictionaries for Kids (www.dictionariesforkids.com) last year. In the 2001-02 school year, each third grader in public schools on Kaua’i got a dictionary and pen.

“Our aim is to provide the children with a tool for learning, so that they can feel good about themselves and their abilities, and be a credit to their family and their community,” they said.

“Our only motive is to share the spirit of aloha and along with you (parents) and the teachers, to encourage every child to grow and learn to the best of his or her ability. Being able to speak, read and write well is the pathway to a lifetime of success,” they said.

The two said the gifts are ways of honoring the late Gloria Dahmen Brown-DeCesare, Dahmen Brown’s sister, and Gallagher’s father, the late Joseph E. Gallagher, Sr., who passed away recently at the age of 80.

“As a way of giving back to our beloved Kaua’i community,” and encouraging young readers to become old readers, the couple is already looking forward to doing it all again next year, they said.

“This is an annual project for us,” said Brown. The two have been coming to Kaua’i annually since 1995, and spend around three months in Po’ipu each year. But they find themselves staying longer each year, splitting time between residences here and in Kentfield, Calif., in Marin County in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At $2.50 a book, the cost of 8,000 dictionaries is $20,000. But the money is not a concern for the couple. It’s finding the time and warm bodies to assist with their endeavors, they said.

They are looking for volunteers to lead the charge on Maui and the Big Island, before taking on O’ahu.

She is a retired translator, and he was a professional in the municipal-bond trade. Together, they also owned a tortilla company.

The one-on-one interaction with the students gives the couple the chance to encourage the youngsters to read out loud every day, for 15 or 20 minutes, using a kitchen timer if one is available, they said.

If there are no humans to read to, the youngsters may read to pets, stuffed animals, in front of the mirror, or even to imaginary friends or siblings, they said.

Research has shown that reading scores soar when children read out loud to their pets, and the children “get to practice other people’s words,” Brown said.

“Pronunciation problems are frustrating to young readers,” and reading out loud sometimes helps the children overcome those frustrations, he added. English is a combination of many languages, and not everyone masters it easily, he said.

“The dictionary’s a book, and can be read,” he continued. “Take a word at a time, an unknown word” every day out of the dictionary, Brown advised.

Hopefully, young readers will find an author they like, read all of his or her works, and then “graduate” to works by other authors, he said.

When Gallagher found out reading levels in Hawai’i lag behind national averages, the work became even more important, she said.

“We try to make it cool, and that’s what gets them,” said Gallagher. “My dictionary is cool” is a recurring theme in personal notes of thanks they receive from grateful students, she said.

If their work keeps one person out of prison, off welfare, or moves one to study education to become a teacher, their efforts will have been worth it, they agreed.

While Dictionaries for Kids is solely their project, it’s not a totally original idea. They first read of a program in another state, Mary French’s Dictionary Project (www.dictionaryproject.org).

Dictionaries for Kids is patterned after that program.

There are free-dictionary programs in 42 states now, and in Brown’s home state of New York, every child in grades three through six gets a new dictionary. Rotary clubs across the country have adopted free-dictionary programs as club projects.

But parental involvement is key, they said. “It’s really gotta come from the parents and the community,” Brown said. “The most important thing is to get parents involved. Get involved,” he pleaded.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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