Donations are needed to help librarian amass even more books

by: PHOTO BY ELLEN SPITALERI - Laura Jones, librarian at Kelly Elementary School, helps Reola, 7, find a book about ballerinas on the last day of school last June.It seemed a simple goal: give kids books to take home during the summer to encourage them to read. But Laura Jones kicked it up a notch when she decided to give every one of the nearly 500 students at Kelly Elementary School at least 10 books to take home, and she let them choose which books they wanted.

She called the effort the 10,000 books project. She put out a call for book and cash donations, and the resulting support from the surrounding communities enabled her to give students 12 books each in June.

During the past school year, she and her volunteers gathered and organized the books, and on the last day of school she set up a system where each class came in, accompanied by a teacher and parent helpers, and the students “shopped” for their favorite books; library books were not included in the activity, she added.

It could have been chaos, but mostly it was exciting to see the kids so eager to grab their favorite books on the last day of school, Jones said, noting that now it is time to start planning for next year’s book giveaway, and she would love some help from the community.

Two years ago, Jones, the librarian at Kelly Elementary School, just off Southeast Foster Boulevard and 92nd Avenue, read about a program that provided 800 low-income kids with 12 books each during the summer for three years, and it turned out that those 800 students returned to school at the same level as their peers who went to summer school.

So she decided to see what would happen if she and her volunteers gave each of the students at Kelly 10 books to take home during the summer for two years. She wanted to flood the community with 10,000 books, and see how it would change the students, she said, and she noticed a change before the last day of school even ended.

“One teacher said at recess the kids were so quiet; they were all sitting down reading,” Jones said, adding that one girl thanked her and said, “I’ve got a library now.”

During the summer, Jones received a thank-you note from one fourth-grade girl, who said she’d finished some of the books, and enclosed a photo of her reading.

Later in the summer, a staff member at Kelly told Jones he ran into a sixth-grader who said he had finished all his books, leading the teacher to tell Jones, “I think we are changing the culture of the neighborhood.”

“Laura goes above and beyond the call of duty with this 10,000 books project,” said Ann Bakkensen, a retired elementary school librarian who volunteers in the library at Kelly. “Her vision and passion for the kids inspired her to do this. Reading levels go down over the summer, and the teachers work so hard to have them progress. If kids have books, they can come back to school in the fall stronger readers.”

Books a luxury

About 80 percent of students at Kelly Elementary School are on the free or reduced-rate breakfast and lunch programs, and there is no public library in walking distance, Jones said.

“In this economy, families are struggling, so extras like fun books are not in the budget,” she noted.

In addition, the school has a Russian-immersion program and a student body from diverse cultural backgrounds, so finding books to meet the needs of students in kindergarten through fifth grade can be a challenge.

Jones said she is grateful that Multnomah County Library, with an outreach program called Book2U, comes to Kelly both during the school year and every other week during the summer.  

“They bring books that kids can borrow whether they have a library card or not ,and since the books aren’t officially checked out kids can keep them as long as they like,” Jones said.

For the summer giveaway program, she targets phonics books for the kindergarteners, and tries to make sure the Russian-immersion students get to take home at least two books in Russian.

The students at Kelly want to read the same books that kids everywhere want to read, Jones said, adding that she has a wish list for the 10,000 books project that includes picture books and chapter books for early readers, graphic novels and comics, like “Garfield” and “Calvin and Hobbes,” the latest fiction books for appropriate age levels and non-fiction books on subjects like animals, pets and sports.Even though next summer vacation is months away, Jones is already looking ahead to the end of school, and she has begun to gather and categorize books and ask for donations.

What works best for the program, Jones said, is for people to send checks to the school, so that she and her volunteers can purchase new or gently used books. They work closely with the students during the year, and can pinpoint the kinds of books that the students love to read, Jones added.

County connections

Although Kelly Elementary School is not in Clackamas County, hundreds of books come from donors or stores that are in the county.

“I have used the Barnes and Noble at Clackamas Town Center to buy books with donations and they give a teacher discount and will special order books if needed,” Jones said.

Volunteer Ellen Bartholomew works with the students at Kelly every Tuesday in the library, and has come to know their tastes in books; she keeps a mental list, sometimes matching books to specific students.

Every Wednesday, on senior discount day, Bartholomew heads to the Red, White and Blue store in Gladstone, where “they have wonderfully nice staff and always a great selection of books for really good prices. Their merchandise is generally in much nicer condition than other thrift stores.”

She recently visited the Pond House bookstore, adjacent to the Milwaukie’s Ledding Library, where she also found books in excellent condition and at reasonable prices.

Helping kids read

The physical condition of the books matters to her, she said, adding that she and Jones want the students to feel that they have been given books that come straight from a bookstore.

Bartholomew has volunteered at Kelly since February 2010, and she is in her third year of helping organize the books for the 10,000 books project.

“I loved to read as a kid, and I will do anything to encourage kids to have books that they enjoy. If you can read, you can do anything you might want to do,” she said.

She expected the younger students to like picture books, but was surprised that the third, fourth and fifth grades liked non-fiction.

The older students love to get into a series like the “Harry Potter” books, she noted, and books about snowboarding, fashion and friendships also have appeal.

Finding, categorizing and organizing all the books is time consuming, but the looks on the kids’ faces when they get to choose their books is gratifying, Bartholomew said, and she has seen a big upswing in interest in reading at the school.

In early September, Bartholomew was volunteering at Kelly the first day that one of the kindergarten classes came to the library.

“They all burst in and said, ‘Wow, look at all the books.”

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