Of all of Kern County's many challenges, I find our poor literacy rate the most depressing.

Not knowing how to read, or being a poor reader, is so debilitating to children. It's such an anchor on their potential and talent.

And it's so easily fixable.

We have a volunteer-based program here called the Community Reading Project that has had incredible success since its inception in 1999 but it's too low-volume.

By that I mean the kids who are lucky enough to get into the program really do excel, usually bumping up their skills by a whole grade level. That's huge!

Not enough kids are getting into the program.

Which is where you come in. We need more volunteers. Way more.

And wouldn't you know it, I have all the info to help get you started on what should be this community's No. 1 goal: 100 percent childhood literacy.

Here's how it works. (It's so simple, even I could have thought it up.)

You and four of your friends, family members, co-workers, or whoever, attend one of three upcoming training sessions. Then each of you dedicates one hour per week to helping four second graders practice their reading for 15 minutes each.

That's it.

Just go to the school and listen to kids read. Think of it as your investment in society's future, no pressure.

Community Reading Project coordinators will pick the school, sign you up with a classroom teacher and off you go.

The training sessions will give you some strategies to help the kids, such as sounding out words or reading to the end of the sentence for context to figure out a word, etc. But really, just being there giving them one-on-one time to practice is the key.

I know it sounds too easy to be true but before and after testing of kids in the program has consistently shown that Community Reading kids improve, on average, by 7.5 months in a semester, nearly twice the normal rate.

The importance of helping struggling second graders read at or above grade level cannot be stressed enough.

Because by the fourth grade, they have to know how to read in order to continue learning. If they aren't getting it by the third grade, many just give up.

Once that happens, studies show, those children are much more likely to drop out in later years.

Which, I believe, leads directly to grim little stats like this: From 2007-2011, 21.4 percent of Kern's population was living below the poverty level, compared to 14.4 percent of the statewide population, according to the U.S. Census.

And I won't even get into Kern's crime, teen pregnancy and drug use stats.

We have our work cut out for us.

Kern's third grade reading scores from 2012 show only 38 percent of our kids are proficient or above. Statewide, 48 percent of third graders are proficient or above.

It's not all bad, back in 2010, only 34 percent of Kern's third graders were proficient or above.

So, we are improving, which is excellent news. But it's not fast and widespread enough.

The number of kids we can reach is only limited by the number of dedicated volunteers, which has fluctuated between 160 to 250 each year.

That's not enough.

Already there are two schools in danger of losing the program entirely for lack of volunteers. Franklin and Planz elementaries are scraping by with only one volunteer a week. Don't let it die!

In Sacramento, its reading program was bolstered when Mayor Kevin Johnson came into office and announced that childhood literacy was one of his priorities. His commitment energized the community.

Kern's kids deserve no less. (Hint, hint Mayor Harvey Hall.)

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com