IICF’s Early Literacy Campaign with Sesame Workshop Inspires Parents, Industry

By | October 22, 2014

It’s been about a year since Elmo and Cookie Monster became part of an industry-wide effort by the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF) to promote early literacy, and it isn’t just the kids who have shown their love for the fuzzy monsters.

IICF and Sesame Workshop’s early literacy campaign, “Every Day is a Reading and Writing Day” – which offers free early literacy materials and resources online – has solicited an overall “tremendous” response from the insurance industry from both a distribution and fundraising standpoint, according to Kim Saccaro, executive director of IICF’s Midwest Division.

In the first year, IICF has already raised a substantial portion of the planned three year grant of $750,000 for the Sesame Workshop initiative through carrier, agency and industry association sponsorships, as well as individual and personal donations. The interest has been far-reaching and substantial as well.

“What has been really unique and special about this program is our ability to engage companies that may not have been involved already with the IICF,” says Saccaro.

But more important is the impact the program is already having on young children. Results from a June study commissioned by Sesame Workshop to evaluate the impact of the “Every Day is a Reading Writing Day” initiative are encouraging to both IICF and Sesame Workshop.

The study of 195 English and Spanish-speaking parents of three-to-five year olds using the Every Day is a Reading and Writing Day website was conducted by PlayScience LLC over a period of 10 days. Parents completed a pre-and post-survey to measure how exposure to the website and materials influenced their child’s reading, writing and talking behaviors and the parent’s own interaction with them in these areas.

The study results found that:

  • Parents reported the website enhanced their interest and confidence in talking, reading and writing with their child.
  • The website offered tips and advice that parents wouldn’t have thought of on their own.
  • Parents increased the time they spent engaging in talking, reading and writing interactions with their children from the previous 10 days.
  • Children enjoyed and learned from the website and their interest in talking, reading and writing activities increased.

“In terms of the impact, what was amazing was that it really informed much more about how [parents] can talk and read and write with their children during everyday moments, not just time set aside, and they actually spent much more time doing those activities together,” says Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for Community and Family Engagement at Sesame Workshop. “That is really, really significant because the period of time that they had that exposure to the website was only 10 days. And already, there was a significant difference.”

Betancourt says the feedback they have gotten from parents about the program is they “want more.” These results will help to strengthen the partnership with IICF, she says, because it shows the program is working and that the materials are useful, easy to use and appealing, and making a difference.

“I think it proves that our relationship is not only a good one, but also a committed one and that we’re both on the right path,” she says. “Now the next steps are how you make an even bigger difference disseminating and implementing this further.”

Saccaro agrees, and says the survey results have established that Sesame Workshop is where the IICF hoped they would be. She says the survey information will also help keep the rest of the insurance industry motivated to stay involved or start participating.

“We were really impressed and excited to see also that the talk, read, write and language videos ranked in the top 10 video downloads for Sesame Street on iTunes. Those were all created specifically within the program and funding,” she says.

Why Early Literacy?

While it may seem like a no-brainer to many to support early literacy education efforts, especially those associated with such a well-known and influential organization like Sesame Workshop, Saccaro says they were surprised to learn that isn’t actually the case.

“What we found once we selected Sesame Workshop is we are the first entity and industry as a whole to solely focus on early literacy from a funding perspective,” says Saccaro. “Early literacy happened to be an area of focus that was really challenging for them to get support. I think there is a perception for this age of ‘what is literacy? Do we need to put money towards that?’ For some people it is considered less definitive before kindergarten.”

Betancourt says early literacy is a huge factor in enhancing children’s development and that is a message they want to get out there.

“Talking to them, reading with them, giving them opportunities to do their scribbles – those are the first steps of literacy. But what happens is often parents and caregivers, especially those that may not have as many resources or opportunities economically, don’t have a lot of the information and how to expand it, how to take advantage of everyday moments and opportunities,” she says.

Marlene Ibsen, Travelers Foundation president and CEO, was part of the advisory committee working group that helped form the concept for the IICF’s first national initiative. She was also surprised to find out that there isn’t a lot of support for basic literacy when they began to explore this area.

“There is really a big gap out there and that was surprising to me, especially for an organization like Sesame Workshop. They were really thankful that IICF was thinking about this and offering the opportunity to build out this program and spread the word,” she says.

Travelers has been committed as a “Presenting Sponsor” since the launch of the initiative with its $50,000 donation to the program for one year. The company is currently evaluating if it will continue on with the partnership for another year.

Ibsen says the results of the impact study, as well as the carrier’s desire to help move the program forward, give her no reason to believe they will not continue on at the same sponsorship level. The company also has plans to become more involved with the initiative through its field offices.

“For the first year and having been part of the [start-up] process we wanted to be supportive but we also wanted it to take a little more form and see how it’s working,” says Ibsen. “Our more hands on efforts are just getting underway and they will really be about making sure our community relations committees are aware of this in all their communities.”

The IICF is already working on its next steps also, which are to begin widely distributing the materials in underserved and low-income communities, as well as garnering more support for the partnership from the insurance industry, and of course fundraising.

Saccaro says this is the first national grant the IICF has funded where all four of its divisions across the country are coming together and it is a great opportunity to engage the rest of the industry and other organizations that have not previously been involved with the IICF.

During IICF’s annual Week of Giving in mid-October, they planned to kick-off the next phase of the initiative by partnering with public libraries in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Dallas to distribute materials. Also, the “Every Day is a Reading and Writing Day” website will be featured on library computers at all 80 of the Chicago Public Library’s branches.

Saccaro encourages those in the industry who would like to participate in this initiative to go to IICF’s website at iicf.org to find out how they can spread the word and get involved in their community. There is also a link to a just completed volunteer guide book.

Industry professionals can also link to the program materials on their websites and in communications to their clients and vendors. Those companies and supporters that commit financially will be provided with an “Early Literacy Seal” that links back to the IICF’s website.

A unique benefit the insurance industry has, Saccaro says, is how big and far-reaching its network is. It is the hope of the IICF that the industry can tap into this network to spread the program’s message and materials now that it is fully underway.

“We are really putting out a call to the industry to help us do that,” says Saccaro. “The insurance industry has the ability unlike any other industry to get these materials out to the hands of the children and families who need them.”

Sesame Workshop’s Betancourt says the reaction they have seen since partnering with the insurance industry has been “inspiring” in terms of its national network, resources and volunteers.

“To us, it’s amazing that the insurance industry, who are not necessarily in the early childhood sphere, are really excited and committed to engage, deliver and make everyone aware of these kinds of resources and the idea of literacy in early childhood. I think that’s what’s so effective,” she says.

About Amy O'Connor

O'Connor is the Southeast editor for Insurance Journal and associate editor of MyNewMarkets.com. More from Amy O'Connor

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