There are more than a thousand children with new books in their hands this summer and more on the way, as a college service project took on unexpected life.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville runs a Head Start program at its East St. Louis campus for about 1,500 children. Each year there is a book drive to send home a book with every child as the summer approaches.
But this year, the Phi Kappa Phi honor fraternity at SIUE took on the Head Start book drive as a new mission. It was a competition among all the PKP chapters in the nation to see who could collect the most children’s books — and SIUE came in among the top three, with 2,873 books — almost enough to send two books home with every child.
“Before this, it took us four years to get 5,000 books donated,” said Dr. Stephen Hupp, mental health consultant for the Head Start program “Now we have (nearly 3,000) in one year.”
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PKP adviser Laura Pawlow, an SIUE professor of psychology, said it wasn’t as much work as you might think to collect the books.
“We did a lot of word-of-mouth on the Internet,” she said.
They engaged the help of two Catholic churches in Edwardsville, which used the drive as part of Lenten services. They put up donation boxes throughout the area, and approached LuAnn Locke, owner of Afterwords Books.
“She was so generous; she donated 100 books right off the bat,” Pawlow said.
Number one chapter in the nation for book collection? The national organization won’t say, according to Pawlow. But SIUE was definitely in the top three, which meant they will receive a Little Free Library to place in front of the Head Start center.
“Our motto is, ‘Let the love of learning rule humanity,’” Pawlow said. “What better way than a book drive to encourage learning?”
The Little Free Library is a wooden container shaped like a house and weatherproofed, which will sit on a stand outside the center filled with books. Much like a “take a penny/leave a penny” dish, anyone can take a book out and keep it — or drop off a book for someone else to read.
The Little Free Library has not arrived yet, but Pawlow and Hupp are already planning its decoration and installation.
Hupp said the center’s primary goal is academic readiness, and reading is vitally important for promoting literacy and early learning. Once child psychologists recommended reading to children beginning at six months; now, the recommendation is from birth, he said. A note accompanied all the new books home with the children to their parents, detailing the importance of daily reading.
“We know that reading really sets the foundation for learning,” Pawlow said. “We also know when kids are exposed to books before they can read, it breeds excitement; they want to read. Having the right books available, with bright colors and pictures to draw a child in, can set a foundation that can carry through.”
It was also important to have a wide range of books available, Pawlow said. The drive made it clear they would accept any book, but were especially seeking children’s books featuring children of color.
“This is a diverse set of kids,” Pawlow said. “There’s something to looking at a favorite book and seeing a person who looks like me.”
Students were actively involved in the project, collecting the books and encouraging others to donate. While the fraternity has approximately 200 members, a small group were more actively involved, though most are now gone for the summer or traveling, Pawlow said.
One student planned to donate all his old books from childhood, Pawlow said, but then his mother vetoed the idea. Instead, she said, he scrounged up some cash and bought as many new books as he could afford, checking with Pawlow for authors and themes that would be particularly useful.
“The kids love to read; they love getting books,” Hupp said. “Our goal is to build on wherever they’re starting from.”
Nationally, the PKP competition collected 14,000 books for young children this spring. SIUE’s collection was nearly 20 percent of that total, Pawlow said.
But it won’t stop at that, Hupp said. Once the Little Free Library is installed, it will be a source of books for the children and their families for years to come. And they will continue to accept book donations for the children, in the hopes of encouraging more readers, he said.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2507.