Students are busting out of school this week, and many of them are clutching new books: for summer reading or forever reading. For some, due to family finances that are too tight to purchase books or unsafe neighborhoods that prevent them from going to the library, these books are even more beloved.
Some of the donated, hardcover First Books are being handed out in school; others are being distributed in backpacks assembled by United Way this week; and others will be given out at early-summer events being coordinated by local teachers unions. In New York's North Country alone, 1,700 books — $15,000 worth of resources — will be given out at local events by teachers within the NYSUT Plattsburgh Regional Office area volunteering their time, according to Paul Webster, NYSUT community outreach coordinator.
In Syracuse, an outdoor Field Day and Summer Reading Celebration was changed suddenly when a shooting and unruly crowd in a nearby neighborhood park the day before prompted school officials to change plans and keep students indoors.
"It was a timely reminder of how our school serves as a safe spot in this neighborhood and how great it will be for the kids to have books of their own this summer, as many families are protective and won't let them go on their own to the public library, which is not close by," said Jen Groff, interim librarian at Westside Academy.
"For some students, it is both difficult and dangerous to access books and libraries," said Webster. "It makes First Book even more important."
"Some classes visited the school library and, to others, I brought books on a cart for them to choose. I've also added copies to the library collection and teachers have picked books for their classrooms as well," said Groff, grateful for the First Book donation.
First Book is a nonprofit that provides disadvantaged children with new books. American Federation of Teachers has partnered with First Book at https://www.firstbook.org/AFT. First Books include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, picture books and board books.
This week, eighth-graders at the Mohonasen school district in Schenectady County selected a free book for their summer reading ELA project. "Students were all smiles and the books flew out of the boxes into students' hands," said Maria Pacheco, Spanish teacher and president of the Mohonasen Teachers Association.
Mindy Holland, Mohonasen middle school librarian, helped students check out books from the library for their summer reading; then students were allowed to choose a First Book "they can keep forever."
The book giveaway was open to all students, so everyone "could take a book without any stigma," said Holland, who has been a school librarian for 14 years.
"Divergent was the most popular,'" she said.
Throughout the year, a group of teachers led by Deb Brown from Bradt Elementary School visited NYSUT headquarters to sort thousands of First Books to be distributed to other school districts like Monroe 1 BOCES SRP and Wayne Finger Lakes BOCES SRP as well as to bring books back to their Mohonasen students.
"The Mohonasen TA has joined forces with NYSUT and First Book to bring more than 1,000 free books to students this academic year," said Pacheco.
A First Book giveaway last December provided students with a book for themselves and another they could give as a gift, perhaps to a younger sibling.
This week at NYSUT headquarters in Latham, volunteers from the United Way of the Greater Capital Region, Target retail store and members of the local labor community have been stuffing 1,000 backpacks — donated through a grant from Depend — with pencils, school supplies, coloring books, stickers and 1,000 books donated by First Book.
The backpacks will be given out to children at summer food programs headed by United Way agencies.
The North Country First Book outreach is happening in part to benefit the community outreach of North Country Thrive, a nonprofit agency that operates out of SUNY Plattsburgh and which oversees numerous agencies that help children and families in need in seven northern counties.