Our Story

Joanne Roussy, co-founder and chair of the Reading Bear Society, was inspired to create the program by someone she calls her first teacher – her resilient sister Denise. Joanne grew up witnessing the support required to raise a child with special needs; Denise has cerebral palsy and, as a result, was not a conventional learner. Born and raised in a small Acadian community in Northern New Brunswick, where family and community were at the heart of their upbringing, both Joanne and Denise celebrate the strong social fabric and love that allowed them both to flourish. The community’scommitment to Denise’s growth ensured she would experience the same love of reading and self-confidence that developed so much more easily for her siblings.

In seeing how community creates the necessary support for children living with vulnerabilities, later in life Joanne was alarmed by how many mothers in Vancouver were raising their children in isolation with little or no support. As a founding member of Mom2Mom, Joanne spent six months shadowing mothers in their daily lives in their homes and at their children’s schools.She witnessed their daily struggle to live on social assistance, pay the rent, and put food on the table. Poverty was clearly putting their children at risk for school failure.

In one household facing the challenges of poverty, a girl was given a teddy bear and books to read for the first time in her life. The family’s happiness gave birth to the Reading Bear Society.

Around this time, Joanne also met two important figures who have since played a major part in the Reading Bear story. Ms. Lani Morden was the principal of Seymour Elementary School and a passionate advocate of early literacy. Carrie Gelson was a teacher at Seymour, who had just received a box of donated teddy bears. Under Joanne’s guidance, home library units, including the bears, were created and piloted through the StrongStart program. As a side note, the liaison between Lani and Joanne had deep roots. Joanne had in fact conducted her doctoral studies with Lani’s mother.

Joanne was also fortunate to cross paths at this pivotal moment with Isabel Chen, a medical student with a keen understanding of the detrimental impact of poverty on child health. All three women were fueled by their passion for equality for all children, and were soon joined by other founding members Santhe LeBlanc, Lynne Stanger, and Ryan Melsom. The Reading Bear Society’s journey had begun.