Story and photos by Natalie B. Anzarouth |
RED BANK – The air at Red Bank Primary School was filled with anticipation on the morning of Sept. 13. On what would typically be a regular day of scheduled classes and lunchtime bells, melodic music played in the background of Pre-K students’ giggles and shrieks. Echoes of a cheerful principal speaking to students could be heard across the room, as classes lined up at each doorway, eagerly awaiting their turn, not for food, but for books.
It was not your average day in the school cafeteria.
The Bridge of Books Foundation was there to kick off its fall donation campaign. With an all-volunteer team, the foundation – which has run since 2003 – distributes free books to students from low-income households across the state coming.
It’s an opportunity for students to own their own books, New Jersey Bridge of Books chapter founder and director Abby Daly explained. “Red Bank Primary was an obvious choice. This was one of our first distributions when we started and we’ve been here several times over the years. This is where we started and your roots are important,” Daly said.
Daly, sporting a green T-shirt that read #bridgeofbooks, matched her team of friendly and cheerful volunteers. The room was full of long tables, with books covering almost every inch of counter space.
“You found ‘Horton Hears a Who’!” one teacher exclaimed to an ecstatic student.
Students could select three books of their choosing to take home with them. Many of the children clung to their books holding them close, as copies of “Captain Underpants” and “Play Ball, Amelia Bedelia” found their way to their new owners.
“I love this program. It’s been unbelievable. I can’t even believe how many books were given to our children,” Caroline Dwyer, guided reading instructor said. “Some books these kids are really familiar with, like ‘Little Bear,’ but they want one of their own copies at home,” Dwyer explained. “So it’s great that there are so many older established books and new books like ‘Pete the Cat’ and ‘Mindcraft’ of course,” she said.
School Principal Luigi Laugelli said parents are just as excited as their children about the visit from Bridge of Books Foundation. “Any time we send books home with students, parents are always ecstatic. Especially those parents that can’t regularly afford the opportunity to go to a Barnes and Noble or order on Amazon or download a book on a Kindle.”
The donation at Red Bank Primary puts Bridge of Books at just over 950,000 book donations, with the foundation gearing up to reach 1 million book donations by the end of this year.
It’s a scene that could have rivaled any party celebration, with children sitting in circles with classmates, already reading their new books. “It really reinforces that it’s about giving kids access to books. It’s not that they don’t want to read. It’s that they don’t have access. And when you tell them that they’re going to keep books at their home to call their own, even better,” Daly said.
The foundation relies almost entirely on donated books from communities across the state, with a portion of the books purchased by the foundation, all to meet the needs of the students. And according to Daly, the need is great.
“What we’ve found over the years is that there are two New Jerseys. There’s that part of New Jersey that has families that go to bookstores and can have books in their home. And because they appreciate the value of books, they don’t throw them away. And then there’s that part of New Jersey very clearly where the kids do not have access to books.
“We’re that bridge between those New Jerseys,” said Daly.
One of the significant benefits of the Bridge of Books Foundation, according to Laugelli, is that students can keep these books at home. “The fact that these books go home with students makes a huge difference. These books will then be shared with other family members. They’re not going to sit on the shelf. They will be used and used and used,” he explained, adding that many students re-donate books they no longer want or need back to the school. “We will see them (the books) again.”
Dwyer credits the program with increasing the students’ enthusiasm for reading over the years. And Laugelli agreed, stressing that it’s not about a grade or a test score. “It’s about those seeds that you’re planting. So we might not be able to see those results right away. But, of course, down the road we’ll see that increase.”
Laugelli also noted that, as students advance to middle school, scores have increased. “It’s definitely had a positive impact. And the kids love it. There’s not one child here that’s not excited about getting books,” he said.
Daly recalled a Ted Talk she once led on this topic. “We do food drives and we do clothing drives without giving it a second thought. And food and clothing is what gets these kids through the day. You add in books to that and then it’s like the trifecta.”
Books, Daly said, often fall way down on the list of necessities when a family is concerned with putting food on the table and a roof over their heads.
“I love going to bookstores and just walking through. And I know that I can pick out books and go and pay for them. A lot of these kids don’t have the resources to be able to do that. So, if we can try to recreate that bookstore experience kind of magic, that’s the goal,” said Daly.
The average for reading proficiency in the state is 60 percent for third graders, according to a 2010 report by the Advocates for Children of New Jersey. Students who come from lower/middle-income households have a 57 percent proficiency; and low income third graders only have a 43 percent reading proficiency.
The big benchmark according to Daly is between third and fourth grade, where kids transition from learning to read to reading to learn.
As the morning reached early afternoon, students began to line up with their fellow classmates, books in hand as music continues to play. A second grader on his way out proudly held copies of “Pete the Cat,” “Little Chick” and “Splat the Cat.”
“I’m going to read these in my office,” he said.
For more information the Bridge of Books Foundation or how to donate, call 732-291-4755 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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