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Literacy Lab helps girls get the love, and life lessons, of reading

Ashley Muñoz Lopéz, 8, struggled with reading and fell behind in school. She needed the kind of help her Spanish-speaking parents couldn’t provide.

Amyra Dibble, 12, was a bookworm whose friends don’t share her passion. Other students might call her a nerd. She wanted to talk to kindred spirits who also love to read.

For both girls, the Literacy Lab program of Girls Inc. of Orange County proved just the right find. For eight years, Literacy Lab has boosted reading skills and self-esteem through the simple act of bringing girls together with program leaders to enjoy stories.

“I can read things. And I can learn things from reading,” said Ashley, who later this summer will start third grade at her Santa Ana school.



Ashley’s reading skills improved so much since joining Literacy Lab that she now checks out two or three electronic books at a time. All that reading boosted her grades during the recently finished school year, even as many other students struggled with online instruction that was the norm for many during COVID-19 lockdown.

Ashley’s mother, Patricia Muñoz, said her daughter — who used to stumble over the printed word — now loves to read aloud to her parents and her 3-year-old brother.

“She’s progressed a lot,” said Muñoz, who cannot read English and spoke in Spanish through a translator.

“She can pronounce more words, understand what she’s reading, and express what she’s reading.”

Amyra, who lives in Fountain Valley and is headed into the tricky milieu of seventh grade, shared her own profound insight on the value of storytellers during an online book discussion about “Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America.” The discussion group included the book’s Iranian-born, Southern California-raised author Firoozeh Dumas, who saw her 2003 compilation of personal stories become a best seller.

During the recent Zoom session, Amyra told Dumas and four other girls in the forum, “If you didn’t have people share stories, and (they) never gave you advice, then every single person in the world would be going through all these things alone — even though everyone else is going through them.”

Between the lines

As much as Literacy Lab is about books and reading, it’s also about confidence. The readings tend to explore themes that promote healthy minds and bodies, STEM learning, and economic literacy — all cornerstones of Girls Inc., which has worked to nurture self-esteem for more than six decades in Orange County.

Literacy Lab runs on two tracks — one for early readers in kindergarten through third grade, like Ashley, and another for older girls, like Amyra, in fourth through eighth grades.

The girls meet twice a week (on-line since the start of the pandemic) for hour-long sessions. They do literacy-based activities that revolve around female protagonists. They also break into smaller sets to read together.

“I feel like the group of girls are just like my family,” Ashley said.

From the reading materials and follow-up discussions, Ashley said she’s gained confidence and is learning “to respect my body.” She’s become a fan of chapter books. A recent favorite focused on the legendary Chinese folk heroine Mulan, the subject of two Disney feature films.

What is it about Mulan that’s so engaging?

“She’s brave,” Ashley said. “And I’m brave.”

The older girls read and discuss a different book every month, functioning sort of like a book club.

“They have a variety of interests, but the one thing that connects them is their love of reading,” said Sarah Hernandez, the lead facilitator for Literacy Lab.

Pre-pandemic, some of the girls in the group likely struggled at school to make friends, Hernandez said. “You would find them at home, or in the library, reading books.”

But over the past year, Hernandez saw them blossom.

“They are such avid readers, many of them can finish a book a week. They began writing their own stories. And then (they) expressed a desire to self-publish their own books.”

They also wanted to talk with female authors who, like themselves, were once book loving girls.

The girls so enjoyed “Funny in Farsi” that arrangements were made for two virtual sessions with Dumas, who lives in Berkeley these days and makes a good part of her living on the lecture circuit and other speaking engagements.

In addition to “Funny in Farsi,” Dumas has published “Laughing Without an Accent” and “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel,” and expects to finish a third this year. She’s also working on a screenplay, which she described as “a comedy with poignancy,” with a Los Angeles-based co-writer.

Born in Iran, Dumas moved to the United States with her family when she was 7. The idea that she would someday write books never crossed her mind while growing up in her immigrant household in Southern California, spending much of her youth in Whittier and Newport Beach until she left to attend college at UC Berkeley.

“I never saw myself as a writer,” Dumas, 56, said just minutes before the Literacy Lab girls logged onto Zoom for their meeting with her. But she had these funny and touching stories about her family that became a series of vignettes published in her debut book, in 2003.

Dumas, who didn’t start writing until she was 36, applauds the Girls Inc. program for nurturing literary tendencies at a young age.

“I would have loved something like this when I was in fourth or fifth grade,” Dumas said.

In talking with the Literacy Lab girls, who ranged in age from 10 to 12, Dumas asked several questions, including what the girls might write about in their own memoirs.

Chelsea Lubandi, 11, who lives in Costa Mesa, said she’d write about “when COVID hit, and what I was doing.”  Akshaya Karthik, also 11, from La Palma, said she would write about when her younger brother got lost at Legoland for about 20 minutes.

“Were you crying and panicking?” Dumas asked.

“No,” Akshaya answered, as some girls laughed. “He gets lost a lot. It’s his habit.”

In the Zoom chat box, where the girls conducted a sideline text conversation, they expounded on their own writing habits.

Amyra shared how she prefers to jot “little blurbs with the main details” in her journal, adding she has friends who don’t understand why writing would be fun when “they can barely find the motivation to do it for school.”

Akshaya chimed in: “I think people make fun of something you do that is awesome because they are jealous.”

Zooming along

Before the pandemic, about 150 girls attended Literacy Lab sessions at their schools. When COVID-19 forced campuses to close, the numbers for Literacy Lab dropped a bit, with less consistent participation, said Eric Kennedy, Literacy Lab coordinator.

But holding sessions on Zoom this past academic year meant Literacy Lab could reach girls in schools from La Habra to Irvine, expanding the Girls Inc. base beyond the Newport-Mesa and Santa Ana unified school districts, where the organization had planned to operate on-campus programs, Kennedy said.

Eventually, two staff members ended up overseeing 16 virtual Literacy Lab sessions a week. And, for the summer, Girls Inc. is holding a Zoom class called Reading PLUS! for girls in the program identified as needing extra literacy support between school sessions.

Even when schools resume traditional on-campus instruction, and Girls Inc. is allowed to resume its school-based programs, Kennedy hopes to continue some level of virtual meetings for Literacy Lab. But, as with all Girls Inc. activities, that depends largely on getting some help, he said.

“We need volunteers to make the program happen.”

Find out more

Information on the programs at Girls Inc. of Orange County, including Literacy Lab, can be found at

Source: Orange County Register

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