updated 05/29/2014 AT 2:00 PM ET
•originally published 05/29/2014 AT 5:30 PM ET
After 23 years of introducing kids to the power of the written word, Reading Rainbow’s final episode aired on November 16, 2006 – but now the childhood favorite is making a big comeback.
On Wednesday, host and executive producer of Reading Rainbow LeVar Burton announced the brand’s next chapter on Kickstarter. “Bring Reading Rainbow Back for Every Child, Everywhere” is an online campaign started by the Roots actor and his Reading Rainbow team to transform the company’s impressive collection of books into an interactive digital library accessible to every child.
The project’s beginning goal was to raise $1 million in 35 days, with all donations going to help make this virtual Reading Rainbow a real program available free to schools, especially those in need. In less than 24 hours, Reading Rainbow reached its initial goal amount thanks to thousands of backers, and the pledges continue to pour in. Currently, the campaign has garnered over $1.8 million; the donation period continues through July 2.
Burton talked to PEOPLE about the impact this already wildly successful project will have on the future of education, and the magic Reading Rainbow has brought to countless lives – including his own.
Tell us about the new Kickstarter project that you are working on with Reading Rainbow.
I’m very excited. This is a way for us to bring Reading Rainbow to what we call “Every Child, Everywhere.” We’re talking about universal access, putting it on the web and especially getting it into classrooms. It’s a product for teachers that is designed specifically for them. The big thing for me is being able, through this Kickstarter, to give the product away to schools in need.
Why did you choose to go through Kickstarter?
It’s really come of age. It’s a legitimate fundraising tool that I have had my eye on from the very beginning. The profile of your average Kickstarter funder is exactly who we want to reach with our message. These are people, who for the most part, grew up on Reading Rainbow and they recognize the value the show played in their lives. In Kickstarter I see an opportunity to really get something done in a good way, with the help of other people who believe in what it is we do and in the future of this country. That’s pretty cool.
I have plenty of ideas for stretch goals. It really involves being able to reach more schools; give the product away to more schools for free. The more money we raise, the more of an effect we can have on the way we are educating our children in this nation, in the classroom – where it really makes a difference.
America has this idea of itself as the global leader that does everything right. That ideal is outmoded. It hasn’t been that way in education, where our children are concerned, in quite some time. We are offering an opportunity for others to get involved and help create this next generation of children as a generation that really can live up to its fullest potential. The best way to achieve that is through literacy.
I think they are fun. I hope others find them fun. We tried to pick things that we thought people would enjoy and find of value. And, of course, create a little extra incentive.
Why do you think it’s important to have a digital version of the Reading Rainbow library available?
We live in a digital world. This is necessary. If you want to reach kids today, you need to be in the digital realm. It makes sense. It made sense two years ago when we created the app, and I am really proud of what the app has done and continues do. We’re the number one educational app in the app store.
Thirty-three percent of the population owns iPads or has access to them. Ninety-seven percent of the families in this country have access to the web, so it’s a no-brainer for me. Universal access has always been the goal.
What does the current Reading Rainbow app offer?
The app is a digital library of books and video field trips. The video field trips are like those on the original television series. That’s what the television show did so brilliantly. It took the literature we were exposing kids to and tied it to the real world, reinforcing the idea that you can go anywhere and be anything – just pick up a book.
What originally inspired you to start the Reading Rainbow company?
All of this work is inspired by my mom, who was my first teacher. My mom was an English teacher, and she was also a social worker. She is a remarkable human being. I am the man I am, because she is who she is. I wouldn’t have this passion for the written word if it wasn’t for my mother. All of this work, for me, is in her honor.
Reading Rainbow has touched countless people. Do you have any favorite memories of meeting fans over the years?
There isn’t just one. For every day of my life, somebody has come up to me and shared with me the importance Reading Rainbow holds in their own life. That blows me away. It really is something to know that you have had an impact and have made a difference. It is the best feeling in the world.
Based on your experience, what is the easiest way to encourage children to start reading?
Read in front of them. That is the biggest thing I think you can do, and the thing that we overlook often. My mother didn’t just read to us when we were kids, she read in front of us. I absorbed that information and saw reading as an important part of being human.