Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

No Recess for Reading: Floyd Stokes brings virtual storytime to kids during the pandemic

A screenshot from “Reading 365.”

Once upon a time, almost exactly one year ago, Floyd Stokes was all ready for his annual “500 Men Reading Week.”

Each year, Stokes, the founder of the American Literacy Corporation, a nonprofit that provides supplemental literacy programs, gathered hundreds of men to read books to students in local classrooms. But just a few days before the 2020 event, Floyd cancelled, concerned about COVID cases beginning to pop up in the United States.

Stokes never thought that, one year later, he would have to cancel the “500 Men Reading Week” again. Not to mention the many other anticipated events he had to cut.

But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a whole lot of reading going on. As an author himself, Stokes knows a thing or two about rewriting the narrative.

“I’m just trying to create and find a silver lining in all of this,” Stokes said. “No matter what the environment is like, reading is important.”

He developed numerous virtual programs for both children and their parents, including an online summer reading and writing camp, and virtual storytime.

Since the beginning of October, the American Literacy Corporation has been active every day with guests reading books via Zoom for children. They plan to continue this through September, completing a full year, as part of Stokes’ “Reading 365” initiative.

He said that the books, as well as interviews with the guest readers, have tackled topics around social justice, COVID, career exploration and stress management, among other themes. For Black History Month in February, they featured only books about African Americans, and Stokes plans to highlight books about females for Women’s History Month in March.

Stokes even live-streamed reading for 12 hours, from noon to midnight on New Year’s Eve, with a new reader every 15 minutes.

“Reading 365” has taken off, he said, with guest reader slots filled for every day through most of May. Teachers, daycare centers and families have reached out to Stokes, telling him how much the program has meant to their students.

“We need to continue to do our part as parents and community members to remind our kids of the importance of learning and reading,” he said.

Stokes’ “Zoom Zoo” is another popular program that invites kids into a sometimes wild educational experience. Students can log on virtually on Saturday mornings to show off their pets and learn from animal experts.

Guests have included experts from Lake Tobias, ZooAmerica, the Butterfly Atrium at Hershey Gardens, PA Department of Agriculture, Dauphin County Sheriff Department’s K-9 Unit and others. Furry wolf pups, baby bunnies, alligators, snapping turtles and goats have made appearances.

Dauphin County Prothonotary Matt Krupp, who Stokes calls his “Jack Hanna,” after the celebrity zookeeper, has helped develop and host each program.

“It’s just a lot of fun and a way to reach out to kids,” Krupp said. “When Floyd calls and asks me to do something, I always say yes.”

Even Stokes’ daughter Madison, 16, has gotten in on the action, helping to host “Zoom Zoo” and working for her father in an administrative role.

As the pandemic has continued, Stokes has learned to take advantage of technology and its ability to connect people to envision future American Literacy Corporation programs.

He recently developed a platform for classrooms and organizations around the country to connect with people who love to read to students. They can view a short description of each reader, along with their profession and preferred grade level. The American Literacy Corporation then connects classrooms to the selected reader.

Since 2001, Stokes’ goal of promoting literacy hasn’t changed. The format now may look different, due to the pandemic, but Stokes is still reaching children where they are.

“What keeps me going is my desire to help kids and families no matter what environment we are dealt,” he said.

To watch “Reading 365” or join “Zoom Zoo,” visit the American Literacy Corporation’s Facebook page. For more information, visit their website.

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