Carol Henault

Carol Henault: The Power of Owning the Written Word

By: Timothy Fuller

Carol Henault jokes that “Amazon and I are best friends… once you learn you can order a book in your pajamas, there’s no turning back.”  Carol Henault, the Executive Director of Reading is Fundamental of Southern California, speaks with enthusiasm and a sense of delight as she describes her journey in the nonprofit world. With an undergrad degree in biochemistry and an MA in teaching from Cornell University, her first research job was on the top floor of Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York City.  She and her husband later began a circuitous route across the country, ending up in California.  In California she landed her first nonprofit job with Women in Community Service to help guide low-income women, ages 16-24, into the Federal Job Corps programs to finish education and job training.  So began a career of over 35 years in the nonprofit world with a focus on literacy.

RIFSoCal, the largest multi-site program in the country and the largest childhood literacy organization in our region, has been serving resource-deprived children in Los Angeles and Orange County for 50 years, with a mission to “promote literacy and motivate children to read by providing new books to create home libraries for underserved children in Southern California.”  Founded in 1966 by former teacher Margaret McNamara, RIF National began when Mrs. McNamara discovered, while teaching in Washington D.C., how few children in low-income areas have home libraries.  This began a civic mission to donate books to children in underprivileged communities, encouraging them to develop a life-long love of reading, the foundation of literacy and the skills needed to succeed in school. 

With just one full-time and two part-time employees, and thousands of volunteers, RIFSoCal currently operates it’s Motivational Reading Program to promote educational equity in disadvantaged communities at over 270 high-poverty preschools, elementary and middle schools, and community-based organizations in Los Angeles and Orange Counties.  Three times a year, a site coordinator from each school visits their warehouse to choose the books they feel will excite their children to read, but the final book choice remains with each individual child.  This past year they served over 40,000 children, down from over 60,000, but Post-Pandemic RIFSoCal is revving up to increase service to their communities.  Speaking of the critical need for home libraries, Carol highlighted a recent First Book study of educators in under-resourced schools and programs who were asked to identify their spending priorities post-COVID: 99% prioritized books for their students and 85% reported that they would use those books to send home with their children.


“Children in low-income situations have often heard 30 million words fewer,” [by the time the enter school] Carol explains.  And, she adds, “as early as 18 months old, many low-income kids begin to fall behind in vocabulary development and other skills critical for school success, and for those kids who enter Kindergarten behind, 75% will never catch up.”  As a result, RIFSoCal is paying special attention to the 0-5 age range, helping children build the skills they need to succeed.  “In fact, about 30% of our kids are now 0-5,” she states.

“We know there is a direct correlation between poor literacy, high school dropout and ultimately crime and incarceration.  We know that books and instilling a love of reading helps determine whether a person will become employable at a living wage, whether they will participate in their communities, or whether we will lose their talents.”  She speaks so fervently about her own passion for books and what it has offered her, in terms of life and career, but also as a window on the world.  “Reading gives you some place to go when you have to stay where you are,” states a quote from a RIFSoCal bookmark contest winner, Carol shares with me, “that’s pretty brilliant for a kid to come up with, don’t you think?”

“[My life] has been shaped in many ways by the books that I’ve read,” says Carol.  She goes on to share, “when I read, I just read, but every once in a while, something just jumps out at me and it’s something that is internal.  And so, I’ll pick up my pencil and I’ll put a little mark next to that passage.  When I finish my book, I’ll go back… read it again, and if it still speaks to me I’ll write it down…. it’s like I am keeping a diary of what is going on in my life because the things that jump out at me are experiences that I am currently dealing with.”

This year Reading Is Fundamental of Southern California celebrates its 50th anniversary and over those years they have served 1.7 million children and provided more than 5.3 million books.  Those children are now building home libraries, developing literacy skills, and discovering a latent passion for reading for pleasure and FUN.  Carol can even recall hearing stories of children sharing their books on the playground and starting their own book clubs.  “I mean, it’s just wonderful,” she says, “our books have increased a love of reading.”

Her roundabout journey from working as a biochemist at Bellevue to literacy advocate for underprivileged children in Los Angeles and Orange County has been a long journey, yet there’s something so natural in how she’s adapted.  “The skills that you need to be a scientist, following things through step by step, looking ahead, analyzing, all of those skills I use just about every day as Executive Director.”  Moving forward, she wants to continue to expand the reach of RIFSoCal’s mission and continue to spread the joy of reading.  A joy that not only enriches a child’s inner life but builds the foundation for success in school and success post-graduation.  As the Former Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, reminded us [shares Carol] “Reading is more than a pastime.  In today’s world it’s a survival skill.  A child who can read is a child who can learn, and a child who can learn is a child who can succeed.”

“Two out of three kids living in poverty in the United States today have no books of their own,” Carol explains, and “kids who live in low-income situations and cannot read on grade level by the third grade are 13 times more likely to drop out or fail to graduate on time.”  Thinking over such bleak statistics, it seems RIFSoCal’s mission to spread literacy through book ownership, isn’t merely an extracurricular activity, but a vital social function.  Carol’s detour from biochemistry seems less like a strange tide of fate, but a serendipitous mission to serve that social function with her inherent love for the power of the written word.


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