Jill Cunningham captivates 16 preschoolers one December morning in the Yoncalla Library with stories and songs about sleep.
She reads about Sam, the young bear who won't go to sleep, showing pictures of him to the spellbound children seated on the rug before her. She poses questions.
"What do you think he's waiting for?" she asks.
"He's waiting for someone to come," says one boy.
She sings between books. "Five in a bed and one of them said, 'roll over, roll over.'"
Every two weeks Cunningham, Yoncalla Library's branch manager for 14 years, instills the joy of reading in these 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.
"We've been coming to story time for at least eight years," says Cassie Reigard, director of the private preschool that she operates in a classroom at nearby Yoncalla Elementary School. "(The children) love it. When Jill walks into our classroom for something, they light up. They love Jill."
The children come from across North Douglas County, but about half live in Yoncalla and will eventually attend its elementary school. So they, along with Cunningham and Reigard, are on the radar of Yoncalla Early Works, a program that aims to prepare every child from birth to age five in the Yoncalla Elementary enrollment area for kindergarten and school success.
Cunningham and Reigard have been important on-the-ground partners in the Early Works project since it was launched in 2012 by the Ford Family Foundation, the Yoncalla School District and the Children's Institute. The project has brought together a variety of public and private community partners like Cunningham and Reigard to design a coherent plan for helping every child get ready for kindergarten.
Cunningham was at the Yoncalla School Board meeting in January of 2012 when Christy Cox, the Ford Family Foundation's program officer for early childhood development, and Jerry Fauci, then principal of Yoncalla Elementary, proposed the Early Works project.
"Jerry talked about 80 percent of kids not being ready for kindergarten, and that just broke my heart," Cunningham said.
She quickly applied for and won a $3,755 grant from the C. Giles Hunt Charitable Trust to offer a reading workshop to parents of children ages 5 and younger at the Yoncalla Library. The workshop, led by a children's librarian from Roseburg, was offered in October 2012 and became the first community activity involving Early Works. Fauci, Cox and other Early Works leaders were on hand as about 20 parents learned how they could help their children get ready to read by talking, singing and playing with them, reading to them and teaching them to write their names. The children left with backpacks full of books. Cunningham says she watched one couple use the workshop materials and practices to help their 2-year-old boy learn his letters and numbers.
"That is one of the nice things about a small community," says the 59-year-old librarian, who sent her four children through Yoncalla schools. "You do see if you are making a positive impact, and you do see what you're missing."
Since that first workshop, Cunningham has continued to be a steady partner in Early Works. She is a member of a work group for the project and attends monthly Early Works leadership meetings and quarterly community gatherings. She participates in other activities involving Early Works, such as Dr. Seuss Night at the school.
Cunningham understands that Early Works offers a special opportunity for Yoncalla, says Cox, and she doesn't want to jeopardize it. Even before Early Works arrived, she was doing "amazing community-based work through the library" and focusing on parents with young children, Cox says.
"She is an absolutely committed community partner in words and deeds," says Cox. "Her conscientiousness just shines through.... I'm amazed at her ability to give back to her own community."
Cunningham again applied for a Hunt grant in 2013 to offer another reading readiness workshop for parents and their children.
Cunningham said she has been excited how everything came together "even though it was complicated, between Early Works, the leadership group, (the workshops), how all these pieces came together for this one common goal – and that is to make our kids succeed. That is just exciting."
This year she has partnered with Early Works in planning four school readiness workshops for parents and children at the library, each with a focus: early math, language and literacy, social and emotional development, and executive functions. Early Works is connecting with parents of young children, she says.
"I see people being reached who I don't think were being reached before," says Cunningham.
She continues to nurture that fundamental skill of reading in Yoncalla kids in other ways. Once a month she invites the elementary school children to the library after school for activities related to books.
During summers, she offers a weekly afternoon reading program for elementary school children. Last summer, Becca Pope, family and community engagement coordinator for Early Works, helped her by leading activities for children under 5. At summer's end, children who read books were rewarded with a chance to pummel Cunningham with water balloons in the library parking lot.
Cunningham grew up in Indiana and moved to North Douglas County in 1978 to be near her sister. She's been in Oregon ever since. She began working as a department assistant in the library 21 years ago and now works 20 hours a week as branch manager. She and her husband, Stanford, 52, a retired Yoncalla Middle School basketball and football coach, live only two blocks from the library, which moved into a new building 10 years ago. So Cunningham walks to work.
"It is the best job in the world," she says.