A childhood literacy initiative featuring a 6-foot tall, cape-wearing squirrel named SHORT created by two Troy University alumnae recently hit several milestones: celebrating its second birthday, graduating from the IDEA Bank to the Pike County Economic Development Center and securing a $25,000 grant from the Daniel Foundation to produce its first children’s book.
SHORT was created after co-founder Monica Anderson Young’s daughter, McRae Young, an assistant district attorney in Mobile, Alabama, spoke with her about the number of children who sit in the courtroom unoccupied for long periods of time. Initially planning on creating activity sheets and providing bags of crayons, Young’s idea morphed into more after sharing her plan with co-founder Dr. Dee Bennett, a professor in TROY’s College of Education, during a TROY alumni event in February 2020.
“As we talked through it, Dee said she thought it could be bigger and we could help more kids,” Young said. “We talked through the night, like we were half the age we were then, and the next morning it was a squirrel who lived outside of the courthouse in a tree with a superhero cape. It wasn’t just sheets of paper with short activities, it was SHORT the Squirrel.”
The initiative spread quickly to Alabama’s 67 counties after the pair were named a 2020 Alabama Law Foundation grant recipient, allowing them to release SHORT’s first booklet titled “SHORT in Court.” Governor Kay Ivey has also endorsed the program.
Since then, they have partnered with Children’s of Alabama and the Alabama Securities Commission to produce “SHORT Gets Sick” and “SHORT’s Money Tree,” which aims to promote financial literacy.
“Alabama is ranked 49th in literacy, but we’re in the top 10 in financial literacy education thanks to the Alabama Securities Commission,” Young said. “We really took inspiration from that, and we hope that if we just keep chipping away that maybe one day we can take that literacy rate higher because of SHORT.”
On Feb. 22, SHORT officially turned 2 years old and celebrated with a Mardi Gras-themed party—a nod to its inception in Mobile—at the IDEA Bank in downtown Troy, Alabama. Over 1,200 teachers and more than 30,000 students also participated in a virtual birthday party throughout the day.
During the event at the IDEA Bank, Young and Bennett made the announcement that SHORT is expanding.
“The IDEA bank was a great nurturing space for our nonprofit, but we’ve outgrown this space. The IDEA Bank did exactly its job in getting us started and helping us launch into something bigger,” Bennett said.
Young added, “At the new office in the Pike County Economic Development Center, we’ll have access to an assembly room, a board room and so many great resources at our fingertips, but we could not have done that without the opportunity here at the IDEA Bank where it all started.”
As a previous kindergarten teacher, Bennett said she’s worked hard to instill a love of reading, language and vocabulary into the children she’s served, and the success they’ve had with SHORT is proof that anyone can make a difference.
“The fact that two ladies and a 6-foot squirrel have accomplished their five-year strategic plan in 18 months goes to show that things can happen quickly,” she said. “In two years, we have covered so much territory and so many different topics in an effort to help children across the state. Doors keep opening, and when doors keep opening your momentum keeps growing.”
Courtesy of a $25,000 grant from the Daniel Foundation of Alabama, the next big item on their to-do list is piloting their first official children’s book that explains exactly why SHORT loves to read.
“We recognized that we had a gap there—we’ve talked all about how much SHORT loves to read, but we didn’t address why, so we want to explain to children that reading takes you into a new adventure, that reading lets pictures in your head come alive, that you can star in the story yourself, all the good things about reading,” Young said. “We never just put something out, we always test it first. If it goes well, it will be distributed across the state to all first graders. We’re very excited about this.”
Though SHORT is an educational program, Young and Bennett agree they view it as more of a community program to help get children the message that reading is important, but fun, and to give them a tangible mascot to look up to and learn from.
“Our husbands make fun of us because we act like SHORT’s real. But to us, SHORT is real, and he’s real to children and we try to keep that mystery alive,” Young said. “By taking SHORT into communities and schools, we’re giving children the gift of seeing a character come to life. We want community members to know that even if you’re not an educator, but you believe in reading, one way you can make a difference is to make sure these literacy kits are in your community. We just love Alabama and we love Alabama’s children and we’re trying to make a difference.”
Beyond the children’s book, future plans for SHORT include additional booklets talking about feelings and mental health and the importance of community and community helpers.
The immediate need for the program is finding spaces to place the literacy kits, such as banks, healthcare facilities, courtrooms, classrooms and more. For more information, to donate or to find resources for classrooms, visit SHORT’s website and Facebook page.