On Sunday, December 19, teachers from Mennies, Rossi, and Barse Elementary Schools received a donation of over 1,300 books from the South Jersey nonprofit BookSmiles, based in Cherry Hill. BookSmiles is dedicated to irrigating “book desserts” in the tri-state area to promote early childhood literacy and a lifelong love of reading. Larry Abrams, a high school teacher from the area, started the nonprofit and has been looking for a foothold in Vineland for years to provide our students with much-needed books.
Rossi Elementary School special education teacher Jeff Martine, who teaches students with learning disabilities and communication impairments, organized the project. Teachers from each school – Michaela Harvey (Barse), Karen Kreck (Mennies), Alexis Cartagena (Mennies), Justine Carbo (Mennies), and Martine (Rossi) – were motivated to provide students with better-than-your-average Christmas gifts. Karen Kreck, a fifth-grade teacher at Mennies, had the idea for students to choose one book for themselves and one more to give to someone for Christmas.
“I want my students not only to enjoy receiving the gift of a good book but to enjoy the feeling of giving someone a good book,” Kreck said.
Alexis Cartagena, librarian at Mennies, chose books for Mennies students she knew and loved from her own time as a student.
“I’ve always loved books and reading,” Cartagena said.
The group filled three vehicles with over 1,300 hand-picked, like-new books donated to BookSmiles drop-off sites across South Jersey for distribution. Books were distributed differently at each school. Martine opted to dedicate the 110 books he collected to the students in his classroom as a seed for a home library.
“Many of my students have learning disabilities that make reading quite challenging,” Martine said. “But so many of these challenges can be met and mastered by access to quality resources.”
Many of the books collected by the group were brand new, recent publications. Mennies and Barse both coordinated whole-school distributions igniting the potential of hundreds of students. Titles including Clifford the Big Red Dog, Pete the Cat, Junie B. Jones, Little Critter, Chrysanthemum, and so many more weighed down the dozens of boxes and bags given to the Vineland teachers.
“All it takes is one book. One book that speaks to a student, makes them laugh or relate to a character, and they’ll be hooked on reading,” Martine said.
“It made my heart so happy giving the books out to our kids,” Michaela Harvey, fourth-grade teacher at Barse, said. “They were so excited, I wanted to cry.”
This project was especially significant because it included three first-year teachers: Carbo, Harvey, and Martine. The trio intends for this project to be the first of many community service opportunities centered around new teachers to Vineland Public Schools. This “New Teachers’ Initiative” has been mentored by veteran teachers Kreck and Cartagena. Justine Carbo, kindergarten teacher at Mennies, was particularly excited about this aspect of the project.
“Not every school district has a caring community of dedicated professionals as Vineland does,” Carbo said. “It feels great to be a part of a group of young, committed, and compassionate educators.”
And the students were overjoyed with their newly acquired bounty. The consensus was the same at each school: big smiles, lots of gratitude, and a big appetite for reading.
If you would like to know more about BookSmiles and help with their mission, you can visit their website at https://www.booksmiles.org/.