As a kid growing up in Montréal, Duncan McDougall loved books, particularly sailing and adventure stories. "I remember vividly the day I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," he says. "I sat on my bed and read it cover to cover. I had to beg my mom to go and get some chocolate. It was so powerful, that book."
McDougall, the 45-year-old executive director of the Waterbury-based Children's Literacy Foundation, says his two sisters and his parents loved to read, too. "If it was a rainy day, it was not uncommon for all five of us to be sitting on a couch, a chair, a floor, reading," he recalls. "We could very happily spend a couple hours doing that."
But many kids don't have such positive experiences with reading, McDougall points out. In fact, he says, two-thirds of children in low-income households don't own a single book.
McDougall founded CLiF to change that nine years ago. The nonprofit organization raises money to encourage literacy among children in rural communities and those who are at increased risk for growing up with poor literacy skills.
CLiF donates children's books to rural libraries, homeless shelters and prisons in Vermont and New Hampshire. The organization also distributes brand-new books directly to kids, at events for children of refugees or migrant workers and through summer lunch programs sponsored by the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger. "For the majority of these kids," McDougall says, "these are the first new books they have in their house."
McDougall insists that getting children to read outside school is critical. Why? The tireless literacy advocate ticks off the reasons as if they're part of a litany on repeat in his head: Children who read are more likely to succeed in school; more likely to graduate; more likely to go on to higher education, to have a higher paying job, to live in a safer household, to be healthier. And they're less likely to be incarcerated or to be victims of abuse.
It's a compelling case for promoting literacy, and it's helped McDougall's charity grow over the years. CLiF started in 1998 with one program that sponsored libraries in six towns and served 500 children. "This year," McDougall boasts, "we have 12 programs, we'll probably be in close to 100 communities, and we'll serve 10,000 children."
CLiF has already brought books or author visits to more than half of the public libraries in Vermont and New Hampshire. By next spring, it will have donated children's books to all the prisons in both states, so that inmates can read to their kids during visits.
CLiF's donors have made this work possible: The organization doesn't seek state or federal grant money, so all of its funds come from individual and corporate donors, foundations and other organizations. In addition to McDougall, CLiF employs three staff members.
But no one is more responsible for its progress than CLiF's wiry, bearded founder. He currently houses the organization in a well-appointed office above his garage, next to the home he shares with his wife and their 6-year-old son. Fostering a love of reading in children is not just a job for McDougall - it's his passion.
You can see it when he talks about the presentations he offers each time CLiF donates books. McDougall knows that if you want kids to read, it's not enough to give them access to books - you have to make them want to turn the pages. So, when he visits a school or a library or a summer camp, he talks with kids about how he feels when he immerses himself in a story.
One morning in mid-December, McDougall spoke to 180 students in the small town of Groton, New Hampshire. Describing the experience afterward in his office, he says he told them he had just finished playing in the Super Bowl. In fact, he had just finished reading a book about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
"For a couple of days," he explains, "I was Tom Brady. And I won three Super Bowls." He says he told the kids how, at one point, he was about to throw a pass when his wife suddenly called him to dinner, and he realized he wasn't a quarterback after all.
"That's the power of books," McDougall marvels - "that you can become someone. You can travel anywhere. You can travel through time."
McDougall's presentations appear to work. The organization's newsletters are filled with testimonials from grateful teachers and librarians.
Barbara Whitehill, director of the Dailey Memorial Library in Derby, attended McDougall's two talks a few weeks ago, when he came to town to donate 90 books. She says the children were captivated by his presentation: "He's wonderful. He's a master at it."
Though McDougall now lives for literacy, he wasn't always so altruistic. In fact, his life sounds like one of the adventure stories he used to love.
After high school in Montréal, McDougall attended Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, where he majored in political science and economics and minored in Spanish. After graduation, he went to work as a wilderness guide, leading backcountry and whitewater trips in Alaska, New Zealand and Labrador. After two years, he decided he wanted to start a guiding company, and he enrolled in the MBA program at Dartmouth.
There McDougall learned enough to realize that his idea was impractical. So he took a job at Mercer, a managerial consulting firm in Boston, which sent him all over the world to help companies with their marketing strategies. After three and a half years with the firm, McDougall took a leave of absence and embarked on a yearlong world tour. "For $11,000, I traveled through 31 countries in South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia," he says. "I loved every bit of it. It was really eye opening."
Done with his travels, McDougall wanted to write about the experience, so he left his job and holed up in a cabin with a woodstove on a nature preserve outside of Hanover. For two years he worked on an account of his travels, eking out a meager living as a freelance writer. "It was a blast," he says. "I felt like Thoreau."
McDougall wasn't able to publish his finished book, so he eventually returned to Mercer. But three years later, he began to feel it was time for him to "give something back."
"All my life I've loved reading and writing," he says. "And it struck me one day, when I was working in Boston, that if I didn't have the ability to read and write, if I had low literacy skills, most of what I enjoyed - and most of what allowed me to earn a living - disappeared. I'd lose my job. I'd written articles that would disappear. A big part of my free time was spent reading books or magazines or newspapers. That would disappear. My life would be completely transformed for the worse without those skills."
So McDougall decided to promote literacy. Like any sensible marketing professional, he researched his market. He loved the Northeast and knew he wanted to stay there, so he began talking with librarians in Vermont and Hew Hampshire about how best to serve them.
Finding a need for children's books, McDougall started there. Today, in addition to donating books, CLiF sponsors workshops that connect young readers with writers. McDou- gall says he was hearing from schools that needed help with the "inspirational side" of teaching reading and writing.
The 50 or so writers that CLiF dispatches are local, McDougall points out. CLiF sends them to schools and libraries within 30 miles of their homes, where they speak for a smaller fee than they'd normally receive.
"The majority of kids in rural communities have never met a professional writer," McDougall explains. "It's very difficult for them to even conceive that they could grow up to be a writer, because writing occurs in a factory somewhere in some other important state, but not here." Meeting someone from their area who has written books, kids realize that maybe they can do it, too, he says. "It is amazing to see the light come on in their heads."
There's still room for CLiF to grow, McDougall believes. He's considering how the nonprofit might provide books to at-home daycare providers, as a way of encouraging reading at the pre-preschool level, when children's brains are still developing.
"For the first five years," McDougall explains, "your brain is just busily trying to decide, 'What do you want me to be able to do?' And if a child doesn't hear a lot of variety of language, then the brain's going to be wired differently."
Joanne Heidkamp, program director at the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, says she hopes McDougall will be able to bring CLiF back next summer as part of her organization's summer lunch programs.
"We're doing food for the body," she says, "and CLiF is really doing that food for the brain."
Heidkamp agrees that lack of reading material is a problem for many of the kids her organization serves.
"If you grew up in a kind of setting where [reading] was taken for granted," she says, "you don't realize that there are just lots of homes where books are still a luxury. And a new book is just not something you can count on."
Thanks to McDougall, many of those Vermont kids are now able to count on CLiF.