Jan Frantz retired early from a successful business career, thinking she’d like to volunteer a bit between traveling and spending time with her daughters.
But within a few years, she found herself in a specially retrofitted recreational vehicle, serving homemade sloppy joes to seven elementary school students before helping them learn to read.
That small effort has mushroomed since Frantz started Read and Feed in 2007. Starting with the opening of traditional-calendar schools Monday, Read and Feed will tutor and feed 650 students from 20 Wake County schools every week.
The books that used to fill her attic are now shelved at the group’s Cary office. Her homemade meals have given way to food prepared by the Interfaith Food Shuttle. And the group now has three RVs in addition to programming at local community centers.
But the central tenet remains the same: developing an “appetite for reading” in children by bringing needed help straight to their neighborhoods, along with warm meals.
“Reading is so fundamental for these students moving forward,” says Loraine Smith of Hope House, a Wake Forest nonprofit that has worked with Read and Feed. “There were kids who didn’t necessarily like to read when they first came in, but they had one-on-one time with an adult to encourage and listen to them, and it made a huge difference.”
Frantz, who was born in Wisconsin, moved a lot as a child because of her father’s manufacturing job. Despite the upheavals she remembers her home life as stable with nightly family dinners and a mother who focused on reading.
“She was always big on the idea that if you could read a book, you could do and learn anything,” Frantz says.
She’s tried to re-create that feeling for the children who come to Read and Feed. She says the program also combines some elements of Meals on Wheels and the Head Start preschool program – two places where she and her mother volunteered when Frantz was growing up.
Her own career took her in other directions. She studied political science in college, earning a master’s degree in accounting and later an MBA.
She started out as an accountant, and went on to hold executive positions in several companies. By the time she retired at age 50, she was a global vice president at the Durham company Reichhold.
But she was also starting to feel burned out, and looking to be more available to her two teenage daughters. In retrospect, her plans to travel and relax were doomed from the start: “That’s not me,” she says. “I don’t like to sit on my duff.”
An announcement from the pulpit of her church about a program to provide tutors for area elementary schools changed her plans. Frantz signed on and found herself in a Northwoods Elementary kindergarten class, where she was asked to focus on the seven out of 19 children who still needed to learn their letters and numbers.
She was nervous, but quickly found herself helping, and being drawn to, the children. One boy in particular would hide under the desk when he was asked a question, and told her he didn’t think he was as smart as the other children.
“There was this word, ‘can’t,’ that we never said in my house,” says Frantz. “I said, ‘I know you can do this.’”
She was gratified to help him and other students open up and improve, but also surprised by how unprepared many of the students were for kindergarten. She started asking questions at the school, and went on to do her own research on students who struggle with literacy.
She learned that the students at that school spoke dozens of different languages, and included refugees from war-torn countries across the globe.
She learned that in Wake County schools, a third of students are poor enough to receive federal subsidies for free or reduced-cost lunches. And she learned that those students often had the hardest time learning to read – a key skill for success in school and life.
“That’s in our own backyard,” she says. “I knew there were issues, but until then I didn’t know the magnitude.”
Stocking the RVs
Homing in on the needs of the schools and families, she decided that using converted RVs would allow her to go the students – a help to low-income families with transportation problems – and give her enough room to serve a meal.
Knowing that some students weren’t getting full meals at home, she thought providing dinner would draw students in, while also helping them concentrate and making the experience warmer and more personal.
“I was raised that you talk at dinner and relay your day and make it a social time,” she says. “I wanted to make it more of a comfortable atmosphere.”
The RVs, which cost upwards of $40,000 each, were bought with a corporate sponsorship and grants from the Women’s Giving Network of Wake County in 2010 and 2013.
Each has a classroom in the back, with piles of books in Ziploc bags sorted by reading level, along with alphabet games and other literacy tools for students who can’t yet read. In the front section are a table and couches where students eat, and a tiny kitchen where food is heated and served.
The area that once held the vehicle’s shower now has its walls covered with dollar-store toys that reward students who keep up with their work and show respect to their families and the volunteers.
A bookshelf is filled with books they can choose to bring home and keep after each visit. By the end of the semester, they each have more than 70 books.
Read and Feed works in partnership with Wake County schools, which select students and neighborhoods that would benefit from the traveling classrooms and provide data on the students’ improvement in reading and overall school performance.
The more than 400 volunteer tutors are all vetted and trained, and educators help choose the materials they use.
The program’s basic model has been tweaked over the years based on experience and data on students’ progress. The same students can come for a full year, for instance, and they see the same tutors every time.
“We found that the stability was really critical,” she says.
The group recently planned its first major fundraising event for September, and is looking to expand. Some ideas are to add a program for pre-kindergarten students, which could use the RVs during the school day, or to franchise the Read and Feed approach so that other districts can use it.
The group recently hired an executive director, but Frantz is still closely involved in its plans and sees no reason for that to stop: “This has been the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says.
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Born: Milwaukee, September 1950
Residence: Holly Springs
Career: Founder, Read and Feed
Education: B.S. political science, Ohio State University; M.S. accounting and MBA, Northeastern University
Family: Husband Jay, daughters Rebecca and Christina
Notable: Frantz recently ran her first half-marathon, at Raleigh’s Rock and Roll marathon in April. She also enjoys gardening, travel and, of course, reading.
Read and Feed will be holding its first major fundraising event at Marbles Kids Museum on Sept. 24. The “Rock & Roast” will feature an oyster bar, a s’mores station, band, auction and more. Details at readandfeed.org.