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“It’s much more than a literacy program.” Tales With Big T to host “Sweet 16” community birthday party

A young child reads with Joey, a 4-year-old chihuahua that works with Big T to help make children feel comfortable reading. 

“Whenever I arrive at a place and a kid runs up to me and gives me a hug … I know no matter what we’re doing that day, we’re doing something right. That really is the best part of all this,” says Lisha Terre, founder of Tales With Big T children’s literacy program. “I’ve had some really good success stories. Kids that won’t speak to people but start reading to a dog. I have a kid that the teacher said won’t read a book out loud in class, but she read three books out loud to Big T. It really is a proven study. It works. And I don’t know why we don’t do more of this.”

 “Big T” is Tchotchke, a 6 pound, 16-year-old rescue that helps kids learn to read out loud and feel more confident about their reading skills. Terre has a traveling library with over 300 books she takes everywhere to share with the kids. All of the books feature a character of color. On Wednesday, Aug. 11, Tales with Big T will be hosting a Sweet 16 community birthday party at Meadowood Park in Madison.

A young child plays with Big T and Joey.

“Two years ago, we had his 14th birthday party in the park and it was a pretty big, huge success. Tons of people showed up and tons of people donated, just like this year,” Terre says. “Last year, he was going to have his Quincierro, cuz he was 15, and it was going to be a themed party but, you know, COVID changed things. So we’re going to have a ‘Sweet 16′ this year.

“He’s been working for six years now in our schools starting in September,” she adds. “Basically, the impetus for this all was me combining three passions of mine – I love kids. I love dogs. And I love reading books.”

Lisha Terre

Terre started “Tales with Big T” back in 2015 after reading about the terrible racial disparities in the Race to Equity report released by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

 “When I started reading about those disastrous numbers, I knew that something needed to be done and I saw a study out of Tufts University where kids that struggled to read are going to read to a dog more confidently than they would read to a human because a dog is not going to judge them,” she remembers. “So, I’ll use any gimmick I can to make a kid love learning and reading and the dog is really a gimmick.”

The study showed the many beneficial aspects of children reading to dogs including increased motivation to read independently, increased self-confidence and self-esteem, increased sense of support, and reduction of stress and anxiety.

Terre and Big T started out at Orchard Ridge Elementary School and from there it just expanded to community centers, schools, events, and more. For the past three years, Terre has added Joey, a 4-year-old chihuahua, that works with Big T.

“My roots with the program are those kids that go to Orchard Ridge, so the Meadowood Neighborhood,” she says. “Every week I’m at Meadowood Neighborhood Center no matter where else I go in the community. I feel really rooted in Meadowood and I’ve become very close with these kids. I’ve been watching them grow and they’ve become like my own kids.”

Tales with Big T keeps plenty busy during the school year but also hosts events during the summertime.

Children play with Big T and Joey.

“When kids aren’t in school, I wanted to continue what I was doing,” Terre says. “I’m at Meadowood Park each week and I bring the kids fresh fruit and books and some activities to do … and I bring the dogs. 

“And, do you know what? Sometimes kids don’t want to read during the summer. And that’s OK,” she adds. “It’s become much more than a literacy program. It’s turned into something bigger. I just love the kids and I want to be a comfort to them and whatever may be going on in their lives. Some of these kids have been through quite a bit in their young lives.”

Wednesday’s event will have a mac ‘n’ cheese bar sponsored by Chef Dave Heide, empanadas by Stubborn Mule Catering, face painting, and fire trucks with the Sable Flames, the City of Madison’s African-American firefighters.

It will also have music and kids activities from Club TNT, birthday cakes from Hyvee, juice from Columbus Nutrition and, of course, free books from Big T.

“I am so grateful for all of the support for this event. Everything has been donated for this event. They are all doing it out of the kindness of their hearts for the kids,” Terre says. “I know it’s a doggie birthday party, but it’s really all about the kids. It’s just another way to give them a fun day.”