Interview and Photos by Jan Osborn.
Read Across America Week 2022 is February 28 through March 4. The day was established by the National Education Association (NEA) in 1998 to help get kids excited about reading. The day occurs each year on the birthday of beloved children’s book author Dr. Seuss.
Laura Harris is an Emmy Award and Associated Press award-winning journalist who joined the NBC 5 team in September 2018. One of her passions is childhood literacy. Currently, in North Texas, thousands of children can’t read on grade level. The latest studies show if a child can’t read on grade level by the third grade, they are 5 times more likely not to graduate from high school. For this reason, Laura wanted to make meaningful change and helped start the literacy program at NBC 5 called: Reading With You in partnership with Reading Partners North Texas. Dallas Doing Good had the opportunity to visit with Laura as she read to the students of Uplift White Rock Hills Preparatory.
Tell us about where you grew up and how giving back was a part of your family dynamic.
I grew up just outside of Atlanta, GA. Growing up, God was the center of our lives. Our parents taught us you can’t do anything without Him. So we lived our lives as such. As Catholics, we saw so many people doing so many great things, it just became a part of our lives from the beginning. I can remember when I was 16, I volunteered at the local St. Vincent de Paul store where people would come and buy items for a discount. The beauty of it all was that they could shop with dignity and not feel like they were being given a hand out. It was more of a hand up. That’s how I live my life today. Helping those in our community who need it most.
You helped start the childhood literacy initiative at NBC 5, Reading With You. What was the catalyst for starting this program and tell us how it works.
When my sister and I were kids, reading was not optional. We learned from a young age that being proficient in reading would be the key to so many doors in this world. Funny story– when I was about 5, my mother made me memorize the Gettysburg Address. That was my talent at the talent show! I actually know it by heart to this day! I say all that to say, I lived in a home where literacy was so important. Every child is not that blessed. It’s estimated that there are nine million elementary school students who are not proficient in reading… and stats show that if children aren’t reading on grade level by the third grade then they are four times more likely to not graduate high school. This is my why. Kids deserve a chance, early and often. It’s my hope that Reading With You provides that chance through literacy resources and book lists that kids and parents can learn from.
What stories have most impacted you during your time reading with our children?
Before the pandemic started, I would often go to schools and public libraries to read to children. In December 2019, I went to a school in the southern sector of Dallas to read to the kids. When I walked in, they were just so excited! It was as if I was a magical being! Once I finished reading the Polar Express, I told them all they would be getting a book and a bag of candy. It was as if they had hit the lottery. Many children go through much of their early childhood WITHOUT a brand new book in the home. Through the station’s RWY initiative, we changed lives that day. It’s more than just a free book, for many students, it’s something they have never seen before. When that happened, I knew we were doing something special.
Since you arrived in Dallas, you have been very active in supporting the nonprofits. What are some of your favorite causes?
Reading Partners North Texas. Reading Partners believes that all children deserve the opportunity to succeed, working to ensure that all students in North Texas – no matter their background – have the opportunity to lead happy, healthy, and successful lives.
St. Vincent de Paul. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is a volunteer organization that offers direct aid to those in need across nine counties in North Texas. Through personal, compassionate interaction, the Society’s members provide short-term financial, material and emotional support to our neighbors in crisis.
Kleinert Foundation. The Kleinert Foundation believes in the power of community and the transformation that can happen when groups of people come together towards a common good.
United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. United Way of Metropolitan Dallas is a social change organization that unites the community to create opportunity and access for all North Texans to thrive. Together with committed change-seekers, they are mobilizing a movement for lasting change to ensure all our neighbors have access to education, income and health—the building blocks of opportunity.
On a personal note, you have covered many national events over the years. Can you tell us about some of the highlights in your career?
I think the coolest was an INTERNATIONAL assignment. I had the pleasure of being chosen to cover the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in the summer of 2021. While it was complicated by the pandemic, the experience was truly incredible. Telling the stories of North Texans who had made it to the pinnacle of their sports careers, and being able to watch all that unfold live, was something that I will never forget.
The pandemic changed the way families and businesses operate. As a news reporter, what were some of your biggest challenges during this time?
Working from home was really strange. I was one of the first anchors in the building to start anchoring a full newscast from my house. I had no teleprompter, I had no training in it all, just trying to make it work. I think the hardest part of it all was the isolation for so long though. I really realized that people need people, even though I do like my silence sometimes, I really missed the team feeling of being in the newsroom. You also realize how slow the internet is sometimes when you are trying to put on live TV. The delay was horrendous! haha
How do you remain optimistic while reporting the news when there is so much sadness you have to report?
It’s more of an out of body experience sometimes. Showing sympathy for people going through so much is so important, but I have to remind myself to leave it at work. You can’t hold all of that on your shoulders all the time. I do find myself saying prayers in hopes that things get better when the stories are sad. At the same time, it makes me work harder to find people like you, Jan, who are doing good in the community. Always trying to make people smile. That’s important. We have to highlight the good in life, because there is so much of it!
Every morning, NBC 5 Today is dedicated to delivering positive local stories of people doing good, giving back and making a real change in our community. Can you share one example of doing good that most inspired you?
I love the story of Mansfield’s own Orion Jean. I met him when he was like 9. It was truly incredible what he was able to accomplish during the pandemic and what he has continued to do. He collected hundreds of thousands of meals for people in need at the height of the pandemic through his Race to Kindness campaign. He also collected 500,000 books to distribute across the country to kids who otherwise may have gone without. Orion is proof, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can make a difference WHERE you are.
Now that you have settled in Dallas, what are some of your favorite things to do in our community?
I absolutely love playing tennis. I like golf, but I’m no good. HAHA! I’m pretty simple though. If I’m not at work, I like to keep it low key at one of my favorite restaurants in town and I love going to live sports!
United Way of Metropolitan Dallas held its annual United Way Reading Day Presented by EY on Friday, March 4. This year, Reading Day will include 150 volunteers reading to more than 1,000 children in schools across North Texas. United Way volunteers will also donate books through virtual book drives and create inspirational bookmarks for students. Volunteers can register here throughout March: https://unitedwaydallas.org/readingday
This year, Reading Day volunteers read aloud books that explore the idea of positive mental health, with stories that give students a chance to identify with the characters and their emotions, fears and frustrations. The event is an opportunity to empower children to recognize and process their thoughts and emotions in positive ways, which is especially important after two years of pandemic-related learning disruptions and school closures.
The overall goal of United Way Reading Day is to inspire a love of reading and learning. Reading is the gateway to education, and a child who can read on grade level is equipped for success in every subject.
Currently 50% of North Texas third-grade students do not read proficiently. Research has shown that kids who enter school ready to learn are more likely to read proficiently by third grade, and students reading on grade level by third grade are five times more likely to graduate ready for success in college or career. United Way’s goal is to increase by 50% the number of students reading on grade level by third grade by the year 2030.
To learn more, go to Reading With You in partnership with Reading Partners North Texas.