A Book of Their Own
Every year tens of thousands of children’s books make their way into the homes of students whose families might not be able to afford starting a home library of their own. For more than a decade Books Are Wings has provided an outlet for families looking for a way to donate their own children’s books and help other students at the same time. This month Jim Hummel takes a look at what it take to get from start to finish.
Click here to learn more about Books Are Wings.
The sea of children’s books stretches across lunch tables lined up at the cafeteria of an elementary school in Central Falls. Long before the students will arrive for a special morning assembly, volunteers are setting up: ready to hand out books, book marks and apples to hundreds of 1st through 4th graders at the Ella Risk Elementary School.
By 8:45 the 2nd-graders being arriving, and a buzz spread through the cafeteria.
The goal by the end of the day: to encourage students to read and to help them start - or build on - a home library of their own.
White: ``A lot of these schools don’t have book fairs because children don’t come with money to buy books and so we are that for them.’’
Jocelynn White is director of the non-profit organization called Books Are Wings, a conduit for new and `gently used’ book donations - in many cases from families whose children are grown but don’t want to throw away what was such an important part of their childhood.
The organization officially began 13 years ago after one of its founders, Elizabeth Denigan, was trying to figure what to do with books she had cleaned from her own daughter’s shelves. That has morphed into a group that now takes in more than a 1,000 books a week at its offices in Pawtucket, organizes them and sends them right back out into the community.
White: ``Our dream someday is a video of showing what it takes for someone to hand us a book and then watch where it goes; it comes in here, it gets put in a box, it gets a sticker on it, it goes back in another box, it goes on the hand truck, down into a van, into the school and then into the hand of a child and that’s the picture we people to understand, how much it takes to get this book, that you gave to the next person.’’
The assembly we saw is repeated dozens of times every year at schools in Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket, areas Books are Wings focuses on where some families might not have enough money to buy their ownbooks.
White: ``We say it’s food or books, some of the children and parents we work with they need the essentials of food on the table and heat in their homes, and so when they only have pennies to spend, the book, unfortunately is what falls down; and so we’re there to kind of help support that piece of them.’’
On this morning Principal Mike Templeton introduces White, whose theme will be making healthy choices. She reads a book called Henry Gets Moving, about a hamster who has poor eating and exercise habits, but feels much better after he makes some simple changes in his life.
The kids get a surprise visit from Henry himself, then do a project decorating bookmarks, before receiving a new copy of the Henry book and an apple - followed by a trip to the main table to choose two books of their own to take home.
By the end of the morning the school will have had all the grades go through the same process.
White says they also make a pitch for the children to use their local public libraries
White: ``Because the foundation of the organization was to support the libraries and let children and families know that libraries exits and they can utilize that as a resource we continue to do so all the time; so children will find one book they really like and we can say to them `I know your school librarian has the rest of this series there for you.’”
Valerio: ``One very important thing is they get a selection. The fact that they get to see and choose something that interests them.’’
Jose Valerio is in his second year as principal of Veterans Memorial Elementary, just a few blocks over from Ella Risk and has had Books are Wings visit his school. He knows firsthand how crucial it is to develop a love for reading.
Valerio: ``I have eight brothers and sisters and two of us went to college, with the same parents. So the fact that we got the foundation, we were younger and we enjoyed reading, that’s the only reason why I went to college, if not I probably would have been like my other brothers and sisters you know what, I don’t like school. Reading is the main indicator of success, so for me the earlier they can read, kindergarten, ideally in kindergarten; if a kid’s at level they enjoy reading the rest of their life is going to be a lot better.’’
And the earlier in life, the better. These pre-schoolers at the Heritage Park YMCA in Pawtucket got a visit from Books are Wings that included a guest reader in their classroom, before they headed down the hall to choose their books.
Hill: ``Before Books Are Wings I knew that obviously there were kids who didn’t have as many books but seeing those kids and how excited they are to get books is really powerful.’’
High School Senior Sarah Hill has volunteered for the organization since she was in 7th grade.
Hill: ``It really, I think, hits me when there are always kid who agonize over picking which two books they want to take, because those might be some of the only books they have and there are also always kids who are so selfless and ask to take other books for their cousins, or their sisters or their brothers because they don’t have books either.’’
Books are Wings has bins like these set up in half a dozen public libraries across the state and holds book drives throughout the year. They will see 1,500 school children in February and hand out 3,000 books.
White: ``What we really want people to understand is that these are books for kids that they want to choose themselves.’’
Hummel: ``It’s not a dumping ground.’’
White: ``Exactly. They don’t want the ratty book that’s been sitting in a closet for a long time, they really want that beautiful, brand new book that’s sat there, but they also may want and be interested in the Magic Tree House book that’s been read a million times before because that’s what they’re interested in.’’
Hill: ``It’s so easy to get people to donate, it’s not hard to just put a box of books together. A lot of people here I’ve known, when they know I’m working with Books Are Wings, they’ll give me a whole box of books to bring into the office, because they have them sitting in the attic or they’ve been meaning to go through them, and their kids are off to college and they don’t need them anymore.’’
Hummel: ``Do you ever think about where a lot of these kids would be if you weren’t around?’’
White: ``I do. We actually had last year someone come to us from a company and as she’s been graduated now and is working. She said I remember you because you came to the library when I was a kid and I got a book from you every year and know who Books are Wings was.’’
Valerio: ``Organizations like Books Are Wings or any other organization that can put a book in a child’s hand is priceless to me.’’
White: ``When they find out they get to take a book, even if they know who we are, they get so excited. The excitement level of: this is mine and I get to keep it and I don’t have to bring it back. Many times children will say to me, I don’t have any money and we’ll say that’s okay today, this is for you.’’
In Central Falls, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.