"So, I was looking for something I'd be interested in, and I saw Percy Jackson and I went 'oooooohhhhhhh,'" said wide-eyed Arwen, a Schenectady third-grader who had just chosen her two free books at a May event held by First Book, NYSUT and the American Federation of Teachers. "I read the first page and I thought it'd be just right for me."
Arwen is from a family of five young children, including a twin sister, Treya. Her voice is as soft as a spring flower petal. A joyful reader, she was excited to see tables of books — enough for 500 students — in front of Central Park Magnet School.
"It makes me feel pretty nice," she said.
Another student, Abby, holding her books, said "It feels really kind because some people don't have books. They'll get to read at home for their (school) reading log."
For Schenectady Federation of Teachers member Christine Simeone, a curriculum and instructional coach, it's basic: "It's all about access. If they have access to books they have access to the world." When a child owns a book, it allows them to "read, reread, and read to their siblings. There's empowerment in ownership."
The books came from a nearby First Book National Book Bank, held for a week in a tin and concrete warehouse in Niskayuna in Schenectady County — $5.2 million worth of bright picture books, tense young adult novels and middle grade mythology series, all donated by publishers.
First Book, a nonprofit set up to collect and distribute books to disadvantaged students, has partnered with the AFT for the past four years; this was their first-ever Book Bank in New York state.
It was a massive undertaking: a half million books were unloaded from 14 tractor trailers and stacked high on 340 pallets with the help of 100 volunteers, who then sorted and labeled thousands of those books for distribution to needy schools across the country. Books went as far away as Hawaii and Alaska.
"Since First Book has partnered with NYSUT we've been able to get out 1 million books," said Katie Donlevie, a First Book staffer who spent a week at the warehouse.
Most of the books were picked up for free by educators and school librarians who drove from all compass points of the state after pre-selecting choice titles online. One pickup coordinated by NYSUT was for 23 Buffalo-area schools.
"These are not lumps of lifeless paper, but minds alive on the shelves," NYSUT President Karen E. Magee said, quoting Gilbert Highet from The Immortal Profession. "Books take you everywhere."
Schenectady seventh-grade teacher Cesaera Pirrone cried when she described how amazing it feels to give a child a book for keeps. She is, after all, handing them a world. "Sometimes, you know it in your heart, but they don't know it yet."
Juliet Benaquisto, Schenectady FT president, said the books will be given to children as they register for school.
Troy teacher Judi Gawinski, the collector of 13 cartons of books, said educators will now be able to give books to poverty-challenged families at school family night.
In addition to about eight Book Banks held in the U.S. each year, First Book also sends out truckloads of 40,000 books to regions where 2,000 people sign up. The gates opened at 9 a.m. at a recent First Book event in Harlem held by the United Federation of Teachers, NYSUT's largest affiliate. By noon all 40,000 books were gone. NYSUT has qualified for eight truck events in the state.
Participants in any First Book event or online order must be from Title 1 schools — schools where at least 70 percent of the students are in need. Books are also provided for free to public library systems that serve poor communities.
In Schenectady, the books scored at the Book Bank allowed students to eagerly reach for books and crack them open to see who they might be making friends with. The scene was repeated in hundreds of schools as educators returned with their haul.
When students get free books, "then we can use money for food and shelter," said Schenectady student Ayariyana, whose colorful barretts bobbed along with her as she went down the rows of books.
There are 30,000 books remaining from the Book Bank. Educators from Title 1 schools may contact Paul Webster, NYSUT community outreach director, (firstname.lastname@example.org) for books.
Distributing nearly 500,000 books took a small army of volunteers, mostly union members, from:
Capital District Area Labor Federation
Civil Service Employees Association, Local 1000
International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 158
Retiree Council 10
NYSUT staffers: Communications Workers of America, Local 1141; Professional Staff Association; Legal Staff Association