When she died at age 59 in 2010, Carol Pufahl left a legacy that included a love not only of reading and writing, but of teaching essential skills.
On last Friday, that legacy was put into action at Riverhead Free Library, where El Dia de los Niños (The Day of the Children), which takes place annually at libraries nationwide, received an added boost thanks in large part to the Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation.
The nonprofit was founded in 2014 to honor the former teacher, who has family in the area and had a home in Southold. Last year, its members approached Riverhead Free Library hoping to help connect more local children with books — an idea central to the mission of both organizations.
El Dia de los Niños seemed like the perfect opportunity to collaborate.
Held every April 30, “El Dia,” as it’s known to those involved, is “a nationally recognized initiative that emphasizes the importance of literacy for all children from all backgrounds,” according to its website.
Riverhead Free Library has been participating for about the last 12 years, according to Laurie Harrison, the library’s head of youth and family services.
For the past two years, the Carol Pufahl Literacy Foundation has supported that effort by offering local children free books each month for the first five years of their lives. The foundation obtains the books through an arrangement with Imagination Library, a nonproft founded in the late 1990s by country music legend Dolly Parton to distribute free books to people in eastern Tennessee, where she grew up.
Parents can now register their children for the program through Riverhead Free Library and, so far, more than 80 local families have done so.
The idea of having the foundation work with Imagination Library came from Roberta Senzer, a mentor and close friend of Ms. Pufahl.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be a fitting tribute to memorialize the work Carol started and bring literature to the underserved and high-poverty populations?’” Ms. Senzer recalled.
Ms. Senzer had hired Ms. Pufahl at Harborfields School District. Ms. Pufahl later moved to the Central Islip School District, received an Educator of Excellence award from the National Council of Teachers of English in 2002 and worked with Lesley University to train future teachers.
To bring Imagination Library to Riverhead, the foundation has partnered with the Eastern Suffolk BOCES Literacy Zone, one 51 such zones across New York, which, according to the state Department of Education, “aim to close the achievement gap in urban and rural communities of concentrated poverty and high concentrations of families and individuals with limited literacy or English language proficiency.”
The Literacy Zone initiative also collaborates with Riverhead Free Library, the North Fork Spanish Apostolate, the Suffolk County Department of Social Services and local schools — including Riverhead Charter School — to provide services to children and their families.
The services come at a time when the number of students who don’t speak English proficiently is on the rise. The number of students in the Riverhead School District’s English Language Learner program has more than doubled since the 2009-10 school year, from 538 to 1290. ELL program participants now comprise 24 percent of the student population compared to 11 percent seven years ago.
Sharon Goeller, a teacher with Eastern Suffolk BOCES who led El Dia’s reading session at the library last Friday, said, “I feel this is going to give them a good head start on reading and speaking — for both the parent and the child.”
Rob Pufahl, Carol’s husband, helped fund the nonprofit to get it off the ground. He said, “She thought literacy was one of the most important things for children. It could help determine the rest of their lives.”
Captions: Riverhead Free Library children’s librarian Barbara Acard reads the bilingual book, “Siesta” Friday to a group of children as Elizabeth Pac, 19 months, of Riverhead moves in to get a closer look. Right: Francisca Franco of Hampton Bays (left) with her son Angel, 1, and Edith Franco of Riverhead with her son Cristian, 5 months, sign up for the “Dolly Parton Imagination Library” through Eastern Suffolk BOCES at Riverhead Free Library Friday afternoon. Credit: Barbaraellen Koch