Auburn Family

There is a place where books sleep hoping to wake up in the arms of a child. The pathways are lined with boxes waiting to be shipped. A pile of misfit books sit in the corner hoping their torn pages will be opened one day. Thousands of stories are sealed up waiting eagerly for children to discover them.

This place is the Jean Dean Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) warehouse in Opelika, Ala. Hidden in the savannah of the stacked books is the special story of Cathy Gafford, the director and a walking advertisement for this production.

The tale began when Jean Dean RIF partnered with The Kiwanis Club in 1990 to put books in the hands of at-risk young children. Joe Dean, Gafford’s father, began the program when he was the Alabama Kiwanis governor.

Little did Gafford and her father know what stories would evolve from this program. Since 1991, more than 2,000 Kiwanis members and volunteers have spent an estimated 6,000 hours in providing more than 75,000 books to children.

Since its caterpillar beginning days, Gafford watched it successfully morph into a beautiful butterfly that serves children all across Alabama.

“Cathy Gafford hasn’t just been RIF’s director,” said J.M. Anderson, who is a shipping and volunteer coordinator at Jean Dean RIF. “Sometimes she was the only employee for more than 20 years. She works at least 10 hours a day and six days a week at the warehouse and then usually goes home to work a few more hours from there. I think last year she did take Christmas Day off.”

Gafford said that she was not planning on always working at Jean Dean RIF. After her father’s term ended she assumed that they were going to turn the program over, but the new governor asked her to do it for just one more year.

“So that’s what we did. That’s when it took over my life and became my thing,” Gafford said.

Three years after her one-year promise never ended, Gafford said that the program was at a crossroads. They needed to find someone else to do it for free, attach money to the director’s job or shut their doors.

Gafford said she believed one of the biggest non-profits in the state shouldn’t be closed down. Because of this attitude, a small amount of money kept the program alive.

She said that her advisers told her she must agree to not take another job if she continued the program herself. Taking a better job with a higher pay was like ignoring a slice of chocolate cake, but she said that it was a family decision to keep it going.

“I could’ve stopped it by not growing the program, but I never had sense enough to say no,” Gafford said.

The program seemed to stick to her like a good book and this one had a happy ending.

Gafford said that she is thankful for all of her volunteers who have helped transform the program into what it is today. To her, Jean Dean RIF is people coming together who don’t know each other or even the children that they are helping, but yet they still give their time and talents to improve the lives of Alabama’s at-risk young children.

Anderson added, “She does all of the fundraising, data entry and organization for over 500 sites all over the state. Jean Dean RIF is the largest organization of its kind, yet Cathy still manages to make the program excel by using only herself, one part-time employee and many dedicated volunteers.”

Gafford said that she thinks it is important for everyone to have an opportunity in life.

“There is no question that we are all born here equal, but the kind of things that happen to us after that make a big difference of what we have,” Gafford said. “If I am going to live here on this earth I want to feel like I have left it a better place than when I came.”

Interested volunteers can begin their own story at Jean Dean RIF by visiting for more information.

Photo credit: Jean Dean RIF

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