News | First lady forms new foundation to focus on Houston’s alarming literacy stats

October 10, 2014

By Emily Wilkinson | Houston Business Journal

Known for her wit and honesty and one of America’s most admired and loved first ladies, Barbara Bush’s legacy will undoubtedly be her impact on the state of literacy in the U.S.

As a new bride and young mother, Bush moved to Texas in 1948 for the same reason millions move to the Lone Star State today — her husband had a job in energy.

After graduating from Yale University, former president George H.W. Bush took a job with Dresser Industries in Odessa, kickstarting his successful career in oil and gas before entering politics. It was the latter, however, that gave Barbara the opportunity to be an advocate for a cause she was passionate about: literacy.

When George was elected the 41st president of the U.S. in 1989, she launched the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, a national foundation based in Tallahassee, Florida.

Twenty-five years later, the Barbara BushHouston Literacy Foundation was started by her son and daughter-in-law, Neil and Maria Bush, to focus solely on the state of literacy in the Bayou City. In Houston, one in five adults — roughly 330,000 people — is considered functionally illiterate.

When did you first become a literacy advocate? After George was elected vice president. I had already recognized illiteracy was a problem, of course, but it was only after I became the wife of the vice president that enough people cared what I said.

September is family literacy month. How important is family interaction in regards to literacy? Studies show that if the parents cannot read, their children are more likely to be illiterate — or at least have reading and learning difficulties. We’re working every day to change that.

What is the background behind creating a separate Houston-based literacy foundation last year? An idea that Neil and Maria have of making Houston a model city that others could follow.

How do you stay enthusiastic given the inevitable challenges? We’re making progress. We have a long way to go, but when you meet the parents and children who have had the courage to step up and seek help and change their own lives — nothing in the world can beat that.

What would you categorize as the biggest success or milestone of your foundation? I guess it is the fact that many organizations have taken literacy on as their own cause.

How has philanthropy changed over the years? Maybe it’s the fact that more people get involved and help worthwhile causes these days. One thing that hasn’t changed is that Houstonians have the biggest, most generous hearts.

What’s the toughest lesson you’ve learned in your lifetime? When (daughter) Robin died (of leukemia at age 3), I realized after several months that this was not only my loss, but that of George and George W. and me. We all loved her. I had not been thinking of their loss. They thought of me and helped me through that awful time.

What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in Houston over the years? The huge growth of the city — our present home was a country dirt road when we moved to Houston. The traffic has changed; the available and wonderful hospitals. I don’t know if this is a change, but again, Houston is the most generous city.

Will you be jumping out of a plane on your 90th birthday next year like your husband did on his? Only if it is on fire. And then I’d have to be pushed.


Closer Look

Barbara Bush— former first lady

Age: 89

Hometown: Rye, New York

Family: Husband of 69 years, George H.W. Bush, five children, 20 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, with a fifth on the way

What’s the last book you read? “Thomas Jefferson” by Jon Meacham. “I listen to books mostly when walking the dogs.”

What are some of your favorite children’s books? “Depends on the age. 'Goodnight Moon' for a baby. All animal stories and mysteries like Agatha Christie's.”

Favorite Houston restaurant? “Love them all.”

Favorite Houston landmark? “The George Bush Monument”

Coffee or tea? “Both — coffee in the morning and tea in afternoon.”


Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation

HQ: Houston

Founded: 2013

Top execs: Neil and Maria Bush, co-chairs; Julie Baker Finck, president

Mission: Improve the quality of life of Houstonians across all ages through the power of literacy

Goals: Raise awareness of Houston’s literacy crisis, ensure every child enters kindergarten ready to read, ensure every child reads proficiently by the end of third grade, ensure every young adult graduates on time with the literacy skills needed for the workforce or higher education, ensure every functionally illiterate adult is able to integrate into the workforce and succeed in everyday life, establish a sustainable system that supports and builds capacity for ongoing literacy success.

60% of children in Houston do not possess the literacy skills expected upon entering kindergarten

24% of Houston third graders performed unsatisfactory on the STAAR reading exam

50% of high school students who took the STAAR English I exam performed unsatisfactorily

Source: Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation