Local group runs with state reading initiative

kjahner@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2014 

— Last year state Superintendent June Atkinson launched the first Give Five, Read Five initiative. This year, a group from a Garner-area church has taken the idea to a whole new level, earning the attention of the top education brass in the state.

A group of five high schoolers and seven adults from Holland’s United Methodist Church have produced one of the most ambitious plans in the state to help elementary students read over the summer.

“For me it just felt like, if we were going to do this, I figured we should go big or go home,” said Garner Magnet High School senior Libby Bowes, tabbed to lead the project. “We want to make sure it makes as big an impact as possible.”

Atkinson will feature the groups efforts prominently in March when the statewide campaign launches. The leader of the Department of Public Instruction has visited the Garner team twice.

“Both (Atkinson) and I were blown away at what they had done,” DPI public information officer Sara Clark said. “I think what they’re doing is great, and it was inspiring and exciting to see what they’ve done. It’s exactly what we envisioned when we started this program.”

The idea of the program is to generate book donations so all elementary students would have at least five reading level-appropriate books to read each summer. A Harvard study that caught Atkinson’s attention said reading five books could at least stop the two or three month setback a long summer break from school could cause students who don’t have a parent encouraging reading at home.

Last year, 123,000 books were collected statewide in an initial launch. This year, the group from Hollands UMC hopes to generate 20,000 book donations for eight Garner-area middle schools alone, with a methodology and distribution concepts to make it feasible.

Building on an idea

The church, located south of town limits on Ten Ten Road, first learned of the campaign during Atkinson’s appeal to a conference for Methodists churches. They made an effort last year, but it paled compared to the plans for 2014. First of all, they decided to bring in some fresh faces to lead the effort.

“We said, ‘Wouldn't this be awesome if our youth picked this up and did it?’ There are five youths; they are the leaders of this,” said associate pastor Brian Wellborn. “The idea is to build leadership skills, communication skills, things that would help them become leaders in the future.”

Wellborn reached out to youth in the church who had expressed interest in service and who he thought could take on the project without being intimidated. He tabbed Bowes, who had worked with elementary students in service programs.

“I said, ‘Well, sure’ and jumped on it,” said Bowes, who next year intends to study at either N.C. State or UNC-Wilmington. “I think it’s really important to impact the younger generation.”

Other Garner High students have taken specific roles including maintaining contact with media, businesses, churches and schools.

The group is starting is drive Feb. 17, weeks before the statewide launch that will highlight their efforts. Clark said the “coolest” part of their plan was securing a warehouse in Garner to store and organize the books. That space will be key as they organize and catalog books by reading level.

“That is going to save teachers time and students time in trying to figure out what books are appropriate,” Clark said.

The 20,000-book goal was made with the hope of providing books for every student at Aversboro, Creech Road, East Garner, Rand Road, Smith, Timber, Vance and Vandora Springs elementary schools.

Clark said last year other middle and high schools around the state have adopted elementary schools. Lenovo partnered with USO North Carolina to donate 2,000 books to schools near military communities. The DPI offiraised 200 books and the Salisbury Post collected 25,000 books for Rowan County schools.

What Holland’s hopes to provide is the next step: a model to reach even more students as awareness of the initiative grows. Local businesses, schools and churches will serve as drop-off sites as the organizers work to move them to the warehouse and organize them.

“There's a need that's been identified among children, and we have the ability to coordinate resources to help children,” Wellborn said. “In this case it's about the children.”

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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