Written By: Claire Cooper, azbigmedia.com
PictureCentral Bistro
Eating pizza will be more than just a night out for dinner in the Valley this October.

KidsRead USA, a childhood literacy program that provides books for children whose families cannot afford them, is teaming up with Valley restaurants to raise money for children in need with the Pizza My Heart for KidsRead USA Challenge 2014 fundraiser.

For 10 days, between October 10 and 20, participating restaurants are donating $1 from each pizza or flatbread sold to buy books for third graders who cannot afford books. Only local, independent restaurants from around the Valley were asked to participate in the Pizza My Heart Challenge, and the servers and restaurants who sell the largest amount of pizzas will earn prizes.

This is the first Pizza My Heart challenge KidsRead USA founder Eileen Bailey has organized.

“Hopefully, we’ll do it every year if everyone has a fun time and loves it,” Bailey said.

Participating restaurants include Arcadia Farms, Bistro 24 at the Ritz Carlton, Maizie’s, Tarbell’s, Nook Kitchen, St. Francis and more. Sponsoring restaurants include Pizzeria Bianco, Café ZuZu, Le Grande Orange, Hanny’s and others.

Pizza My Heart is being promoted at all the participating restaurants with posters and menu inserts.

“Reading in early childhood sparks the imagination and sense of adventure, which eventually shows a child their passions in life,” Tarbell’s chef and owner Mark Tarbell said.

KidsRead USA was founded by author and journalist Bailey in 1996, and since its foundation has given away more than 29,000 books to children in the Osborn and Balsz school districts. According to a report by Central Connecticut State University, Mesa, Ariz. is currently one of the ten worst states for childhood literacy in the nation. No Arizona cities made the top ten list for high childhood literacy rates.

“My inspiration for KidsRead was finding that the children in my neighborhood schools were very impoverished and did not have books at home,” Bailey said. “We started with one school, and that was in 1996, and now we’re at seven schools.”

The books bought with the money raised by KidsRead USA goes only to third graders. According to Literacy Connects, kindergarten through the third grade is the most critical time for children to learn how to read. Children who learn to read well in those grades are more likely to succeed in the rest of their school career. 

“I wanted to catch them at a time when they had learned to read but maybe they hadn’t experience the joy of reading for pleasure,” Bailey said. “My secret goal is to make lifelong readers and learners out of these kids.”

Approximately 61 percent of low-income families do not have age-appropriate books for their children in the household, according to a report by The LUME Institute. On top of that, The National Education Association states that children who read at home and are read to by their parents at a young age score higher on standardized testing. However, in low-income households, children are much less likely to be read to and to read at home than in homes with higher income levels. 

Not only does the Pizza My Heart challenge raise money for disadvantaged third graders at inner-city schools, but it rewards the restaurants and servers who participate in the fundraiser.

The top sellers for both individual servers and restaurants will earn prizes such as cash giveaways, gift cards and passes to various Valley locations such as Top Golf Scottsdale.

“We hope it’s lots of fun for the restaurants, the servers and the KidsRead fans who go in to eat pizza,” Bailey said.

Pizza My Heart still has openings for restaurants who wish to participate in the fundraiser. The entry deadline is Sept. 30 and restaurant owners who want to participate may contact Eileen Bailey at 602-266-4514, eileenbailey1@cox.net  or visit kidsreadusa.org