For Good: Officer Friendly volunteers read to tots, improving early literacy

It’s time for Officer Friendly’s Book Club at a Pinellas County preschool, and children sit on the carpet, squirming with excitement.

They recognize this man in uniform; he arrives monthly to share a good story and answer questions. The visit is supposed to take 20 minutes. Both sides will predictably have so much fun that reluctant ‘goodbyes’ are said an hour later. 

“This program is a win-win,” says Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter, himself an ‘Officer Friendly.’ “It’s a breath of fresh air for my officers to build a relationship with the kids, and we’re fostering a lifelong love of reading at the same time.”

Currently, 67 Pinellas County law enforcement officers volunteer to add a monthly preschool stop to their beat. Participating preschools are part of a school readiness program through the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County. There are 287 of these preschools eligible for the visits, making expansion a real possibility. 
Support for the club sparked in 2015, soon after Slaughter read to a class that included Matt Spence’s 2-year-old son. Spence and Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County CEO Lindsay Carson saw an opportunity. Officer Friendly’s Book Club was born -- and the feel-good educational event quickly grew in popularity.

Spence now serves as VP of Community Impact at the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. He’s involved in a wide variety of nonprofit projects. He cites the book club as his favorite.

“I’ve been honored to be part of this from day one,” he says. “Building relationships with caring adults outside of the home and reading aloud to young children are proven to have positive benefits.”

It’s tough to measure which side reaps the most reward, Slaughter says -- the officers or the kids. Each ‘Officer Friendly’ is initially taught how to read to the preschool set; namely, with dynamic read aloud strategies and plenty of patience. Over time, they become part of that school’s family. Children recognize them when out and about. A positive relationship with law enforcement figures is fostered.

Extension activities are provided to teachers at each Officer Friendly's Book Club visit to reinforce early literacy standbys such as rhyme and simple plot structure. The Coalition partners with Scholastic to purchase a copy for each visit; when the officer leaves, the book joins that classroom’s library. 

“We pay close attention to cultural competency,” Carson says. “Books are chosen based on diversity and potential for life lessons.”

Slaughter sees the opportunity to encourage literacy and present police officers as role models as a way to encourage community involvement. His department allocates approximately $12,000 each year for participation -- and he believes the return on investment to be immeasurably high.

The Community Foundation invited Carson and Slaughter to share the story of the club with a group of donors and community leaders recently at Great Explorations Children’s Museum in St. Petersburg. Officer Friendly’s Book Club is being emulated statewide, Carson shares, with Orange County’s “Books and Badges” as just one example. 

Additional funding could lead to each child receiving a copy of that visit’s featured book. Extension into the elementary school realm has also been discussed. However, the program’s current preschool focus is a must, Carson says.

“We now know that most of a person’s brain develops before kindergarten,” she says. “Whatever we can do to encourage a love of books at an early age is important.”
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Read more articles by Amy Hammond.

Amy Hammond is a freelance writer and author of children’s books that encourage the next generation to attend college. When not indoctrinating youth about the necessity of higher education, she enjoys exploring the paradise that is her St. Petersburg home. She holds a degree in Public Relations from the University of Florida and a Masters in Secondary English Education from the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared in such venues as the Tampa Bay Times. Children’s Book Titles by Amy Hammond include: When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Gator; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a ‘Nole; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Bull; When I Grow Up, I’m Bama Bound; When I Grow Up, I’ll Be a Tiger.