Increasing Well-Being Through Literacy

December 30, 2023

By La Crosse Community Foundation

From Bookworm to Benefactor: Mary Veldey transforms lives through books

For Mary Veldey, saying books are good is like saying the ocean is a puddle; it’s a vast understatement that fails to capture the immeasurable depths and transformative power that stories hold within their pages.

Books are a way to travel anywhere in the world, anytime in the past or future and any galaxy in the universe. Books transport the human mind to places otherwise inaccessible to many (if not all), bond children and parents, and even lift people out of poverty.

“Literacy is so important for people’s well-being,” says the retired reading teacher. “Literacy skills lead to higher success rates in life, and that leads to increased well-being.”

A novel approach: Well-being through literacy

Research backs up her assertion. Consider this:

  • Literate individuals are more likely to make informed decisions about healthcare, nutrition, and hygiene. For example, a UNESCO study found that a mother’s literacy directly impacts her children’s health and survival. In fact, children with literate mothers are 50% more likely to live past the age of five.
  • Those mothers then read to their children, encouraging their literacy. And children with proficient reading skills in third grade are more likely to graduate high school and pursue higher education.
  • Education is linked to higher income. The UNESCO study also found that the global poverty rate would be cut in half if all adults completed secondary education.

Mary notes that even reading to newborn babies has merit. In addition to laying foundational blocks of language, reading to babies encourages parent-baby interactions and strengthens emotional bonds. As children grow, reading also expands their empathy, perspectives and imaginations.

“Pictures will move if you imagine them. And ducks will quack when parents do,” she says.

Reading offers other health benefits, too. A study released earlier this year from the University of East Anglia in England found that people who lack literacy are more likely to suffer from mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. And one from the University of Sussex found reading reduces stress levels by as much as 68%.

Reading books may even lead to a longer life. A study published in “Social Science & Medicine” suggested that people who read up to three-and-a-half hours a week are 17% less likely to die in the following 12 years. And those who read more than that are 23% less likely to die.

Turning the page to philanthropy

Mary’s husband, Gary Veldey, was also an avid reader, and the two bookworms had discussed the possibility of setting up a fund to boost literacy. After Gary passed away in 2014, Mary established the Elizabeth Fund for Literacy & Well-Being at the La Crosse Community Foundation. (Elizabeth is Mary’s middle name.) The field of interest fund aims to invite and motivate others to support both literacy and emotional well-being needs throughout the community.

In recent years, fund distributions have gone toward the Wisconsin Bookworms program to provide free books and early reading experiences to children from limited-income families. Each month during the school year, volunteers read a book to participating children and engage them in a related activity. Each child then takes home a copy of the book to build their at-home library. Last year, the reading program distributed more than 16,000 books.

Mary looks forward to seeing the grant applications that come in each year — and the creative ways community programs and groups are encouraging people to read more. She especially likes projects and programs that increase access to books, promote a culture of reading and encourage a love for reading early in life.

After all, she considers reading the ultimate superpower. While it may not give you the ability to fly or superhuman strength, the power it holds to transport you to different worlds and expand your knowledge with the mere turn of a page is nothing short of magical. And Mary Veldey wants to be sure it’s available to everyone.