ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, who dropped out of his Canadian preparatory school almost half a century ago, spoke in New Haven Tuesday about the importance of literacy.

The venerable nightly news anchor, who has been committed to the New Haven-based literacy organization Read to Grow since its inception, was invited to speak at its fifth annual fund raising luncheon in part because of his most recent book, “In Search of America.” In the book, Jennings emphasizes the importance the founding fathers of the United States placed on literacy.

Jennings, along with the book’s co-author, Todd Brewster, spoke to a packed room of nearly 1,000 at the Omni hotel about the link between Read to Grow and what Jennings and Brewster discovered in researching their book about the American character.

“We see something in volunteerism related to the success of democracy,” Brewster said at the press conference preceding the event. “It is our obligation to try to create a more moral society — this is very consistent with the desire of the Founding Fathers.”

Jennings and Brewster were the first sponsors of Read to Grow, an organization which has collected and distributed over 30,000 books to newborns in its five-year history. The organization, which collaborates with local agencies, businesses and hospitals, now averages a distribution of 475 books per week to babies and children throughout the city and surrounding areas.

“Both of us are deeply committed to the issue of illiteracy,” Jennings said during his speech.

Roxanne Coady, founder of Read to Grow, said she hopes the organization can eliminate illiteracy from New Haven.

“We are coming up with a prototype on how to reverse the downward decline of literacy in the city,” Coady said. “We can take the next step here in New Haven. We can create a template that will allow us to stand here in 10 years and say the illiteracy rate has fallen from 40 percent to zero percent.”

Coady said Read to Grow has already touched the lives of an estimated 100,000 New Haven youths. The program now visits 70 percent of new New Haven mothers to talk about the importance of literacy, he said.

“Right now we cover all babies in New Haven that are born, and it’s hoped that in 10 years there won’t be a child under 10 without a book,” said Virginia Fowler-Mariotti, executive director of Read to Grow. “Peter Jennings had just published a book five years ago when we were starting. Now he has written another book, and it was the perfect match for him to come speak to us. He is an aggressive promoter of literacy.”

Citizens Bank, a founding sponsor of Read to Grow, sponsored the luncheon. Joseph MarcAurele, president and chief executive officer of Citizens Bank — and a former New Haven high school teacher — said he believes Read to Grow is an organization solving an important issue. Citizens Bank has given over $100,000 to Read to Grow and has allowed the organization to use its branches as a delivery site for over 10,000 books.

Jennings said he was impressed by the work the organization has done to fulfill the ideals on which America was built.

“The founding fathers would be pleased if they were here today,” Jennings said.