On the day before a massive First Book drop throughout New York state, Anita Reynolds, president of the Hempstead Teacher Assistants Association, was sorting out 1,000 books for her first-ever event.
"They're all brand new!" she said. "I was taken aback at first. Free books? What do you mean?"
While there may be a lack of snow falling from the late-December skies, there was no shortage of books spilling from schools this past weekend. Close to $3 million worth of books – about 250,000 in all – were distributed to students in need throughout New York, through the American Federation of Teachers, NYSUT and First Book.
NYSUT locals banded together to give out books to children and families at community events, school functions and as part of holiday drives. Book events were held on Long Island and in North Country locations, such as Beekmantown, Peru and Edwards-Knox. In western New York, books were flying off makeshift shelves in Little Valley and Cattaraugus.
In Hempstead, the books were stacked according to the age of the readers.
"We are a Title One school district. That speaks for itself," Reynolds said. "This is a great way to get our kids' reading levels up. There's so much joy in reading."
Reynolds teamed with a leader from the faith community to host the give-away. She worked with a local church and Pastor David Gates, who spread the word to other churches that books were available to families in need, she said.
"We need that connection," she said. "They network in the community."
As she unpacked books, Reynolds noticed a bonus: "Some of the books are complete series! It's amazing. I'm like in awe right now."
To get the word out about the weekend event, they created fliers and gave them to teachers to send home with students. Many of the same teachers volunteered to help with the event.
In Salmon River, the books are going to given away this week at a movie night being held by the Salmon River Teachers Association. The 200-member TA instituted movie night and a health and wellness jamboree this fall after creating new ideas for union and school community involvement at NYSUT's Local Action Project training this past summer.
Tonight, TA members are marking the books with stamps they had made up by a regional company just for this event, said co-president Adam Schrader. The stamps say "Courtesy of the Salmon River Teachers Association."
At movie night, the local union is also hosting a raffle to give away four ham dinners donated by members. A speaker from the U.S. Coast Guard station for the nearby St. Lawrence Seaway will also discuss cold water /winter sports safety. Families will be given the books from First Book.
"A lot of families around here could use help around the holidays," Schrader said.
That appears to be the case in many communities.
"All books were GONE in 45 minutes. I am not exaggerating … Our event was a huge success. We opened the doors at 10 a.m., and literally had not a single book left by 11," said high school English teacher Josephine Libassi, Middle Island Teachers Association second vice-president.
Middle Island teachers Lisa Mosele (left) and Kathleen Hanley. Photo provided.
Longwood and Middle Island teamed up to hand out 21,000 books.
Hands were also busy at North Babylon High School on Saturday, when 16,000 books were given out. More are left for another event.
"The day went extremely well," said North Babylon Teachers Organization local President Selina Durio, a NYSUT board member. " We had teachers, preschool workers, school board members, PTA members, etc. all coming together to share the gift of reading."
Timing was a bonus. "Many people used this distribution to pick out gifts for their children and friends," Durio said. "Anyone who came out was able to choose any book they wanted."
North Babylon has participated with First Book for the past two school years.
Thanks to the First Book drop, the Union of Clerical Administrative and Technical Staff Union at New York University was able to add books to its annual "Stockings with Care" toy drive.
Local union president Steve Rechner (pictured above), also a member of NYSUT's Board of Directors, reported that 40 children are receiving gifts through the collective effort.
"This year, an age-appropriate book was added to each child's packages, which were provided gratis, courtesy of New York State United Teachers and firstbook.org," Rechner said.
To sign up for First Book, go to nysut.org/firstbook.