In March 1991, Joan Weisman had a vision that would change the future of children’s literacy in low-income families in Washtenaw County. She was the first Head Start teacher in Detroit and had worked many years seeing four-year-old children come to school not knowing what a book was. She vowed to change this. After seeing this need, Joan enlisted her friend Jenni Zimmer, a school psychologist and fellow community organizer, to assist with the need that existed among three- and four-year-old children in low-income families who failed to keep up with their peers’ more advanced speaking and listening skills.
Jenni and Joan first met in the 80’s through their volunteer work and community activism. The two partnered up again in 1991 and began what turned out to be a 20+ year partnership and close friendship in starting the Baby Book Club. The two were both devoted to children, especially to low-income, underprivileged children, and both knew the importance of being read to at an early age. Joan and Jenni knew it would help children entering school to develop a love of reading and books from their earliest years. They saw that many parents of these at-risk children did not realize the importance of reading to very young children, beginning in infancy, as a foundation for language and literacy. Many also did not recognize the power of the bonding time that occurs when a young one and parent cuddle, laugh, sing, and wonder while reading a book. Recognizing these deficits among this population of young children, Jenni and Joan founded an organization to address their needs. That organization began as the Baby Book Club in Spring 1991, later becoming the Family Book Club as its impact and missions expanded. The organization is now known as the Children’s Literacy Network (CLN).
During the organization’s early years, Jenni and Joan worked beside a small group of volunteers to give teenaged parents developmentally appropriate children’s books along with information about child development. They lined the walls of Joan’s garage with makeshift shelves on milk crates, turning it into their first warehouse of books and her living room into their first office. Joan and Jenni both served on the board of directors; Joan served as president for the first ten years and was succeeded by Jenni for the following ten years. Under Joan and Jenni’s leadership, CLN has been carried into its 22nd year, allowing Jenni to retire from her role as president. The two have left for the future an organization that is fiscally sound, has active and loyal volunteers, and a base of loyal donors. Although Jenni has stepped down from her leadership role, she continues to fund raise and be an ambassador for the organization. Joan’s involvement and support of CLN also lasted many years beyond her role as president, right up until her passing in March 2013.
Many years have lapsed since Jenni and Joan’s observation of a need turned in to the reality of a fully-fledged organization making a real difference in the lives of low-income children. Not every organization lasts long enough to have this kind of impact. As CLN looks toward its future goals, it is with great pride and admiration that we look back on Jenni Zimmer and Joan Weisman’s vision and say “well done.”