Joe Dean founded a Reading Is Fundamental Program in Opelika, AL and named it Jean Dean RI, in honor of his late wife, a longtime friend to children and Kiwanis. Joe provided an office for the fledgling RIF program, complete with phone and copier and turned his attention to making it the best children's literacy program it could be.
For the past eight years, Joe has worked tirelessly, sorting and packing boxes of books, hauling them to distribution sites, speaking on behalf of RIF and children's literacy, running a reading team for two locations in Lee County and reading as needed in several other counties. The same year that Joe started Jean Dean RIF, Kiwanis International launched a worldwide initiative, Young Child: Priority One, to promote the health and well-being of children ages zero to five. Joe volunteered to serve as his district's chairman of this program. While Young Child: Priority One has a physical health focus, Joe has consistently emphasized the need for mental agility as well. Because literacy is so crucial to leading a fulfilling life, Joe promotes books and reading at all times. "We need to help build children who can do well in school, get a job and be an asset to society, not a burden," he said.
Jean Dean RIF serves at-risk children, from birth to age five, throughout the state; the program provides books and reading motivation at a crucial age in brain development. It is the nation's largest RIF project devoted to very young children and receives support from more than 90% of Alabama's Kiwanis Clubs. A lifelong farmer, Joe knows how to plant a seed and make it grow. Thanks to his watchful eye and nurturing care, Jean Dean RIF now has some 2,000 volunteers and reaches children in every Head Start program in Alabama, most Even Start programs and many state-sponsored childcare services. Jean Dean RIF also brings books and motivational activities to homeless shelters and migrant programs.
Joe is also a highly successful fundraiser. He has developed partnerships with civic clubs, church groups, college organizations, scout groups and local businesses soliciting enough support to enable Jean Dean RIF to distribute more than 360,000 books to 120,000 children over eight years. In-kind donations to Jean Dean RIF amount to more than $4 million.
At age 75, Joe is still an active businessman and volunteer. He runs a small insurance and real-estate office, as well as a farm, and is serving his second term as Board Chairman of the Alabama Council on Child Abuse. Joe frequently closes his business on weekday mornings to read to children in Head Start centers. According to his daughter, Cathy Gafford, who serves as executive director of Jean Dean RIF, Joe lives by the motto, "the impossible just takes a little longer."