By Ashley Csanady, KW Record

WATERLOO REGION — Children’s literacy is getting a boost locally.

On Wednesday evening, Social Venture Partners Waterloo Region selected Strong Start, a local children’s literacy not-for-profit organization, as its first investee organization.

“We are thrilled. It’s very exciting,” said Machelle Denison, Strong Start’s executive director. “Of course, there’s always something extra special about being the first.”

Strong Start will receive over $100,000 in grants and access to Social Venture Partners’ extensive pool of expertise and talent, which Denison referred to as a “tremendous opportunity.”

“It’s a real honour, and we’re very, very excited — as much for the grant as to have the help and expertise of the member partners,” said Denison, explaining that each of Social Venture Partners’ 50 members are local professionals who come loaded with experience, information and resources.

“They will help us assess the needs of our organization,” said Denison. “It’s kind of like having a bank of consultants willing to volunteer with your organization.”

As for the money itself, Denison said it will be used for expansion, program materials and further development.

“Our grassroots organization has grown quite exponentially in the past few years and we need to scale our infrastructure to support a large organization,” she said.

The brainchild of the late Lyle Hallman, the Strong Start program provides a boost to children after the first signs they may be lagging behind in literacy skills. The groups runs two programs, one for children in early elementary school and one for children before they start school.

In 2001, Strong Start was founded based on its Letters, Sounds and Words program, which addresses teacher-identified literacy issues in kindergarten and Grade 1 students. The children then meet with a volunteer from Strong Start two to three times a week for 20 to 30 minutes.

For English as a second language students, the program is adapted for later grades, under the banner Letters, Sounds and Words for English Language Learners.

Denison said that one-on-one attention is often all these students need. Begun in Waterloo Region, this program has spread to several communities in Southern Ontario, including 13 schools in Wellington County.

Their second effort, which is still unique to Waterloo Region, is the Get Ready for School program, for children aged three to four and about to enter junior kindergarten. The program starts in the January before the kids begin school and aims to address factors that may hamper early literacy development, such as lower socioeconomic status or a family home that does not speak English.

Strong Start has also recently partnered with other organizations to launch Baby Connections, a program aimed at stimulating infants’ early literacy.

Social Venture Partners is a regional network of individuals who offer “their time, talent and resources to invest and partner with non-profits in Waterloo Region,” according to a news release Thursday.

There are 27 other communities with individual Social Venture Partners networks of socially minded entrepreneurs in communities across North America.

Social Venture Partners Waterloo Region was founded in November 2010. It will issue its next call for letters of interest this fall.