‘Read Your Heart Out Day’ Encourages Communities To Celebrate Diversity

A teacher started the event in her school over 15 years ago. Now it's reaching classrooms all over the state.

Every year, parents and community members visit classrooms in over 30 elementary schools in the Madison, WI area and read stories to the students.

But this isn't just any story time.

Michelle Belnavis started "Read Your Heart Out" 15 years ago to make sure children of different races and ethnicities felt represented in their schools.

Read Your Heart Out day takes place every February, when we're celebrating Black History Month and National African American Parent Involvement Day.

Belnavis reads to a group of students at Mendota Community Center on this year's RYHO Day. Mendota Community School/Facebook

At RYHO Day, the children are introduced to books that are written by black authors or feature African American characters. For Belnavis, it's all about helping the students build positive self-identities by showing them that diversity is beautiful and should be celebrated.

"So many of our students of color do not feel like they are represented in a positive way," Belnavis told NBC-15. "So this is an opportunity to show them in books where they can overcome obstacles, when they can strive to succeed, when they can do what others maybe think they can't do."

The books chosen for RYHO Day feature characters and authors of color. Wisconsin RTL Center/Facebook

Belnavis started RYHO in 2004 when she saw how positively her students reacted when she read them books with diverse characters. She said the confidence boost the students got when they saw themselves represented in such a positive way was remarkable.

"That is my big takeaway for RYHO, and seeing the families come in," she said. "Their eyes light up when they see themselves present. Understanding I belong here, I matter and making that really intentional makes it all what it's supposed to be—not only for kids, but also for adults. They're learning a lot about cultures they might not know about."

A police officer reads to children at Midvale Elementary School in Madison, WI. Midvale Elementary School/Facebook

A few of Belnavis' former students have participated in RYHO Day, including Zakiya Caitlin, who remembers the impact her first grade teacher had on her, even at a young age. Caitlin moved to Madison from Chicago and she remembers having trouble adjusting to a new school where she was one of the only students of color. She said Belnavis made her feel accepted and welcome.

"Coming here, to predominantly white institutions, that was a major, major culture shock for me," Caitlin said. "I think that Michelle really helped me to successfully navigate this lifestyle, this culture, this place, where it was very different from where I was from. She really helped me open my eyes to see the opportunities that were here, and I would still be able to shine."

Cailin (L) was a student in Belnavis' (R) first grade class over two decades ago. WMTV-15

Caitlin calls Belnavis her "second mom" and says she's thankful to be able to participate in RYHO Day each year. She says she can't wait for her own children to take part in the event when they're old enough.

What an awesome way to bring families together and celebrate diversity. We can only imagine how many lives Ms. Belnavis has touched with her program!

Parents, volunteers and local 'celebrities' play a big role in RYHO Day. Wisconsin RTL Center/Facebook

How can you start something good?

If you live near the Madison Metropolitan School District and would like to get involved with Read Your Heart Out Day, click here for more info.

If you don't live in Madison, you can still help to promote diversity in your own community.

Look for events focused on Black History Month or check with your local library to see if they have any diversity programs in your area.

Let's #StartSomethingGood together!

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