A former College Hill Courts resident lived in public housing for more than a decade before landing a full-time job and relocating. Then she came back to volunteer at the site because she wants to help others.
"We're breaking the cycle of poverty," said Tonya Rooks, former president of the College Hill Courts resident council.
Her latest project is Ready to Read. She got nine other volunteers, some of them former and present public housing residents, to sign families up for Dolly Parton's Imagination Library which provides free books to children by mail.
The goal is to help children learn how to read. Rooks also helps the residents get their children screened for learning disabilities and signed up for assistance if a disability is diagnosed.
Rooks said she got started after hearing statistics that disturbed her.
"If a kid gets to third grade and he can't read, they build a jail cell for him," she said.
Rooks and her volunteers, whom she calls foot soldiers, spent a month canvassing three public housing complexes in the Westside and Alton Park, seeking families with children from ages birth to 5 who qualify for the free books.
"We're impressing upon parents that we also need you as a partner," said Janet Radden, a Chattanooga Housing Authority employee who volunteered to register families for the books.
And if parents can't read, the United Way, which sponsors the Imagination Library, has programs to help them.
Public housing resident Angela Bush said her three children are grown, but she wants to help other families.
"I want to set them up for education, not jail," she said while leaning against a brick wall outside the College Hill Courts management office.
Bush said she sees drug activity in her community. She hopes that if preschoolers are better educated, they won't follow that path when they are older.
Marnesha Springs, a 23-year-old mother who is six months pregnant, was one of two parents at the management office who signed up for the Imagination Library on Friday. Her 4-year-old daughter, Jayla Douglas, turned pages in a book, "Little Monkey Lost," and made faces.
Springs read to her and talked about her plans for her daughter to finish school and attend college.
"I want to show them that everybody's child doesn't have to be a statistic," Springs said.
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.