Struggles with reading inspired Indianapolis resident

Tears poured from the child’s eyes as she handed her mother a note from the teacher.

In the letter, the first-grader’s struggles were laid bare. She was a slow reader, and not completing her work to the level of her classmates, her teacher said.

Rather than get angry, her mother was focused on helping her improve.

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“When my mother did not react poorly, that was the best thing that could have happened to me. It said to me that there’s not really anything wrong with you, that she believed in me,” Priscilla Keith said, recalling the memory from her childhood.

That day had a profound impact on the rest of Keith’s life.

The shame at not being able to read, the embarrassment of not doing her work properly, and the sting of disappointing her parents could have had reverberations. But because she received the support she needed, it set her on a path to success. Now the director of community benefit for Community Health Network, Keith points back to her love of reading as the fundamental bedrock of her life.

Ensuring other children have every opportunity to become lifelong readers is one of Keith’s passions. So when Community collected more than 4,500 books to distribute throughout central Indiana, including 150 to the Greenwood Public Library, it touched something deeper in her.

“I really hope the kids enjoy them. I love reading, and I hope they will too,” she said.

Growing up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Keith was surrounded by family who loved books and prioritized reading. Their influence steered her own love of literature.

The bedroom in her Indianapolis home is filled with loaded bookshelves. Her favorites have included Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, poets such as Phillis Wheatley and Countee Cullen.

More recently, her preferences have drifted towards the more spiritual. One of the titles she’s enthralled with currently is “The Originals,” which focuses on how non-conformists move the world.

One of her dreams is to visit the top 10 libraries across the world.

“I could just get lost walking a library,” she said. “When we go to large book stores, I just wander in and sit. I like to scroll through. I love the smell of a new book.”

Keith was 5 years old when her teacher sent home the note to her parents about her struggles with reading. Because she was doing poorly, she was being separated in her class, grouped together with other slow readers.

“Who wants to be put in the group that doesn’t read very well? You didn’t want that,” she said.

Keith’s mother instantly went to work to help her daughter catch up. Rather than yell or chastise her daughter, she made clear that she would be supportive.

“She bent down and said, ‘I believe in you.’ Then, she picked up the phone,” Keith said.

She was calling her sister, Keith’s aunt Pauline, who was a reading specialist. They worked out a plan to sharpen Keith’s reading skills. Her aunt tutored her regularly, going over sentence structure and word pronunciation and other aspects of reading.

More importantly, she gave Keith a box of books every summer, with the expectation that she read them that year.

She would have all of the books that I should have read at that age, but also included a wide variety of authors, from African-American literature to famous Irish writers.

“My aunt was a visionary. When you were with her, she meant business. She was Aunt Pauline when it was fun, but when she talked about your reading, you had to be there,” Keith said.

Keith’s mother, Marian Thomas, also played a vital role in her reading development. Every night, she read to her daughter. She would recite a sentence, then have Keith repeat the same sentence.

Once they mastered that, they expanded to paragraphs and then groups of paragraphs, and finally whole pages.

“’Eventually, I became more comfortable, and I just started reading the books to her,” Keith said. “My mother was wise. She would get her alone time with me, asking me about the books but also about my day and how the book related to me. That was a really good time to connect.”

The town they lived in was also the home of South Carolina State University. On campus was a speech clinic, where one of Keith’s cousins was receiving help for a stutter. Keith would go along with him, which reinforced what she was learning.

As her proficiency grew, so did Keith’s love of reading. She’d ask for a book whenever her mother would go to the store. After her father purchased a set of encyclopedias, she would sit for hours, exploring the world from A to Z.

Biographical accounts from leaders such as Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman were her favorites, though she also liked to learn about ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians.

“I would just open those books up and read all the time. It would take you to worlds you normally wouldn’t visit,” she said.

The whole family supported her reading. Sitting at the kitchen table, her feet not even reaching the ground, she read the newspaper with her grandfather. Her father, Joseph Thomas, would would let Keith choose a section of the newspaper to read on her own each night.

“Sunday was the big newspaper, so it got to be where, who would get the fresh newspaper?” she said. “He’d ask me my opinion, and we’d talk about things.”

All of these factors helped Keith overcome her early struggles, and with continued hard work, she thrived.

She went on to attend Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology. Keith later added a master’s degree in biology from Atlanta University and a law degree from McKinney School of Law at Indiana University.

“My parents, and my extended family, they always said that I could do it,” she said. “What they did for me was phenomenal.”

In her work with Community, she gathers every two or three months with other department leaders to receive a network-wide status update. Executives all plan a service project to correspond with those meetings.

This spring, the project was a book drive. Community Health partnered with Scholastic Books, asking people to donate either new or slightly used books to the effort.

In rallying people around the drive, Keith decided to share her own story.

“I didn’t realize how much it meant until after I talked about reading, and my process, and people came up to me, some in tears, with children who were struggling and how much it meant to them,” Keith said.

The book drive generated thousands of books for schools and libraries in each of the regions that Community Health deals with. Each region’s leadership was able to pick who they wanted to give the books to.

Books went to elementary schools in Lawrence and Anderson. Community Hospital South chose the Greenwood Public Library.

“It’s nice that people understand that reading is so important, and for a place like Community that’s so ensconced here in the community to recognize that the library is a great place to come,” said Cheryl Dobbs, director of the library.

Those books were distributed May 3 at the library. The collection was laid out in the children’s area, taking up the entire span of shelving. Titles such as “Invisible Emmie” and “Dairy Farm Doozie” had already attracted attention of the kids visiting the library that day.

“We’re delighted to be able to be here and do this,” said Dr. David Kiley, president of Community Health Network’s South region. “We hope that this opens up new opportunities for us too.”

Keith spoke to a small group gathered about her personal history with reading, and how she cherishes the ability to promote literacy in the community.

Her hope is that her experience helps spread a love a reading.

“Reading is fundamental. I want kids to be able to enjoy the art of reading,” she said.

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Priscilla Keith

Home: Indianapolis

Occupation: Director of community benefit for Community Health Network

Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology from Spelman College; master’s degree in biology from Atlanta University; law degree from McKinney School of Law at Indiana University

Favorite writers: Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Countee Cullen, Phillis Wheatley

Current favorite book: “The Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” by Adam Grant