May 14, 2015

A new chapter for First Book and young readers

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
first book event
Caption: NYSUT President Karen E. Magee addresses reporters at Thursday's First Book event. Photo by Marty Kerins, Jr.

In a concrete and tin warehouse at the end of a pothole-filled road, a welcome treasure lies waiting. Books. Stacks and stacks of books. Pallets of books. Hard cover, soft cover, picture books, young adult books. Timely, funny, imaginative, historical books - all for free.

For many students, receiving one of them means they will get to hold their very first book of their own in their hands.

This week, First Book, a nonprofit organization that provides books to disadvantaged children, is sending out $5.2 million worth of books from that Niskayuna (Schenectady County) warehouse to schools from Alaska to Hawaii, with a heavy compass point in New York. It is called a Book Bank, and it is happening through a partnership with NYSUT and the AFT; 100 volunteers; weeks of planning; forklifts; shipping boxes and tape; and muscles to load the books. There are a half-million books going out the door, piled on 340 pallets on Monday morning.

"These are not books, lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves," said NYSUT President Karen E. Magee, quoting Gilbert Highet from The Immortal Profession. Many of the books stacked in front of her, behind her and all around here will go to students in New York's impoverished districts, she said at a press conference announcing the program.

The books are sent primarily to Title I Schools, so qualified because at least 70 percent of students are in need. Public libraries serving the poor also qualify. Recipients have to have registered beforehand with First Book.

Growing up in a home filled with walls of books, Magee, a 30-year veteran teacher, described the wonder of looking into the eyes of a child who's never held a book before, and presenting that student with a book.

"It's our most valuable investment," she said. "Books take you everywhere. " It is important to "sit down and let our minds read, and think."


Teachers, School-Related Professionals, administrators, school maintenance and security workers, and librarians are picking up books throughout the week. Today they arrived in pickup trucks, minivans, compact cars and SUVs, where volunteers gave them cartons of books they had pre-ordered. Each had been given an appointment time to pick up the books. A group of 23 schools from the Buffalo region coordinated with NYSUT and AFT to rent trucks and drivers to enable them to make one pickup of 52,000 books.

Cesaera Pirrone, a seventh- and eighth-grade Schenectady teacher, began crying when she described what it is like to be able to give a book to a child for keeps.

"They know these characters and they feel like they're friends," she said at the press conference.

Through First Book and NYSUT's earlier success in getting truckloads of books awarded throughout New York - eight so far - Pirrone has been able to provide almost 3,000 free books to students. Today's Book Bank - the first of its kind in New York - will add to those riches.
"It's amazing. You have no idea," Pirrone said. As a teacher, she knows what those pages can hold for a child. "Sometimes, you know it in your heart, but they don't know it yet."

On Monday afternoon, she welcomed First Book staff and press to the Central Park Magnet School in Schenectady, where they watched children receive the precious books.

Troy teacher Judi Gawinski, an instructional coach who is out on maternity leave after having twins, loaded up the back of her car to help out in response to an email request for volunteers sent to union members by Troy TA president Seth Cohen.

"We have a big truck coming later," Gawinski said, smiling. She will use the books at School 2, where she is returning from her leave in two weeks, for a family night where books will be provided to parents and students.

She was asked: Are there students in your school who do not own a book?

"Oh my goodness, yes," she said.

First Book spokespeople explained that the books are donated by major publishing houses.

Karen Bradley, director of the Schenectady County Library System, practically glowed within the dark warehouse as she spoke about receiving 1,200 books for the county library.

"We are in an intensive effort of early literacy," Bradley said, noting the library has developed a summer program, working with Schenectady teachers. "It just takes one book to light that fire."

The city has 1,100 children in kinship care, she said.

Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady Federation of Teachers, said every building in the district qualifies for books. As a result of the Book Bank, she said "We're building a book shelf in our registration office. As parents register their child, the kids can get a free book."

She described how teacher Hilary Llewellyn-Southern has been "feeding" books "day after day" to a student with reading problems.

"She's made four years of gain in a year," Benaquisto said. Regular access to books, along with a dedicated teacher, has made the difference.

CSEA's Jeff Pasinella, a security staffer from the Lansingburgh (Rensselaer County) school district, picked up 13 boxes of books.

"It's a great learning curve for kids," he said. "The (school) library can always use extra books."

Mary Eads, Niskayuna TA president, welcomed First Book, NYSUT and the teachers from throughout the state to the school's warehouse. The program, she said, "is a noble initiative."

Once First Book knows what titles it will have for the Book Bank, notices are sent out to participants around the country. Recipients select the books they want. Those who cannot drive to the Book Bank - teachers from Florida, for example - have the books shipped, paying only for the shipping cost. Because this Book Bank is in New York, most educators have been able to drive to the site.