Pine Bluff Woman Inspires Creation of Arkansas Reading Initiative

The statewide effort encourages parents to read to their young children every day.

Biracial mother and baby daughter reading together in a playroom

Pine Bluff resident Onika Luster enjoys reading to her grandchildren. In addition to being a great bonding activity, reading plays an important role in the development of a child’s brain.

“When you read to children, you get to see the spark in their eyes,” Luster said. “There are those brain connectors, those neurons in the brain start to connect. Their eyes light up and they spark and they smile because they have excitement and they enjoy people reading to them.”

Luster is the program manager for the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education at the Arkansas Department of Human Services. Her division is involved with the regulation of child care facilities and about a month ago, she suggested a literacy outreach initiative to connect with the centers and their children on a more personal level. 

“One of the things that I think that would be good for our division would be if we could get out in the community and be able to spend time in the child care facilities — maybe doing something other than just regulating — so they can understand that we’re human people and we’re really not there to hurt child care facilities, we want them to be successful,” she said.

The idea was simple — Luster and her staff would read a book to children at a few child care facilities, perhaps during National Reading Month in March. Over the course of the next few weeks, that little suggestion at the end of a meeting grew into a full-blown statewide initiative the governor formally announced on Mar. 1. 

A partnership between the Department of Human Services and Department of Education, the 10 Minutes Matter initiative emphasizes the importance of reading to children five and younger for ten minutes a day. During a press conference Tuesday, DCCECE director Tonya Williams said this short activity can have many benefits.

“It’s not just about the cognitive development, the vocabulary, but it promotes listening skills, it equally promotes good social-emotional development and a great bonding time for parents and children,” Williams said. 

In honor of Dr. Suess’ birthday and Read Across America Day on Mar. 2, Onika Luster of the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education reads “Green Eggs and Ham.”

By reading one book a day, parents can expose their children to nearly 300,000 words by the time they start kindergarten, according to a study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. It’s estimated that 90 percent of brain development happens in the first five years of life. 

“The ability to be able to mold those children, build their vocabulary skill set, language skills and cognitive skills and brain development is so important, and so I’m very passionate about that,” Luster said.

That passion stems from a personal experience with her 30-year-old son. In 2017, he suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident and underwent intense rehabilitation to relearn skills like walking and talking. To help with the healing process, therapists encouraged Luster to force her son to use his language skills by reading to him and allowing him to read back to her.

“That is what I do believe passionately that allowed my son the ability to be where he is now, which is able to read, comprehend, write, drive and do all the things he was never expected to be able to do,” she said.

Luster also believes young children can absorb a lot at an early age, they just have to have access to education.

“The brain is like a sponge, so the more things you put in there, the more things they can absorb,” she said. “If you put good things in, good things come out.” 

To ensure parents can help their children soak up literacy skills, the state will provide reading kits for child care centers, schools and pediatrician offices as part of the 10 Minutes Matter initiative. DHS has also built a website with resources including a list of suggested books for different age groups.

Parents can access free books through their local library or through a Little Free Library in their community. Additionally, they can sign up for the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a program that sends free, age-appropriate books to children once a month until they turn five. 

“I want everybody to have access to books, being able to read and enjoy reading so that we can close the gap and I want to see it across the entire state of Arkansas,” Luster said.

More information about the 10 Minutes Matter initiative is available at www.ar.gov/10minutes.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.