May 2015 Issue
April 29, 2015

NYSUT hosts state's first-ever Book Bank to distribute half-a-million free books to students

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
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First Book - Photo by Steve Jacobs.
Caption: Photo by Steve Jacobs.

This is not a fairy tale: Up to 500,000 books for students will be available for free pickup or low-cost shipping to eligible schools and programs. The first First Book National Book Bank Distribution held in New York state takes place May 11 – 15 at a distribution facility secured by NYSUT.

The books are donated by major U.S. publishing companies and will be sent to a warehouse in Niskayuna, Schenectady County, according to Katie Donlevie, First Book manager for education. Book Banks are held six or seven times a year throughout the country in partnership with different organizations.

NYSUT has been partnering with First Book through its national affiliate, American Federation of Teachers, to put books into the hands of students at Title 1-eligible schools. AFT has been in partnership with First Book for four years.

The quest has become more urgent as school library services and reading programs diminish under harsh state budget cuts. School librarians, English and reading teachers and language professors are among the many educators who have lost jobs.

Each time NYSUT registers 2,000 new people with First Book, a region becomes eligible for a truckload of 40,000 books. NYSUT so far has completed eight truckload challenges.

This new Book Bank bonanza will blast open opportunities for students who need or want books.

Here's how it works:

Anyone who has signed up for First Book will receive an email with an application. It will list the specific titles available at the upcoming Book Bank.

Educators must list their requests. If they are picking up the books, they will be given a specific date and time, along with the location of the warehouse. Those who request books be shipped must pay 45 cents per book to cover the cost. Books must be ordered in carton quantities of 25 – 100.

Tom Moran, AFT director of paraprofessionals and lead partner in First Book, said the Book Bank will be staffed by First Book workers and by volunteers. If you want to help, sign up at

"This is a big deal to have NYSUT involved and bring this many books into the area," Moran said.

Forklift operators from the building trades affiliated with the Capital District Area Labor Federation will volunteer their time as well.

"This is a social justice issue to battle illiteracy, which has only worsened with the explosive growth of poverty in New York," said Paul Webster, NYSUT's director of community outreach, who helps coordinate many First Book events.

The Schenectady Federation of Teachers, led by Juliet Benaquisto, was one of the first local unions, along with Freeport, Buffalo and Central Islip, to take part in First Book through AFT/NYSUT.

Teaching students to read, and making books available to them, is a game changer, Benaquisto said. "Kids who enjoy books do better in everything," she said. "Literacy issues in the family are a huge factor for how our kids perform ... books are not a priority for families trying to put food on the table. This will be so great for teachers to get books into our kids' hands."

The Schenectady district's free and reduced lunch rate is near 80 percent at the same time school resources, due to state budget cuts, are below the 2008 level.

"We have a large number of students who do not read on grade level. Whatever I can get to use with my students will help," said Schenectady teacher Idris Abdul-Aziz, who last year had his high school students read to younger students every Monday for three months.

Webster said local union members can pick up books in time to distribute them on May 19, when voters decide their school budget and school board members. Many locals host information tables, showcase student achievements and programs, and provide giveaways on school budget voting day as a way to engage the community.

Chris Ellis, a professional staff employee at the University at Albany and a member of United University Professions, NYSUT's local representing SUNY members, worked with a dozen African-American fraternity chapters to visit public schools for Read Across America. Now, these chapters can bring books back to the schools for students, Webster said.


NYSUT members who have not yet registered with First Book can contact their Labor Relations Specialist through their regional office to fill out a two-page form.

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