This article originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of Senior Scope. Article and photos by Seth Thomas.
During the final days of summer, with the start of the academic year merely weeks away, a group of volunteers in New Bedford were busy packaging books, board games, and school supplies inside bright blue bags, which will be delivered to young students this fall at no cost to the recipients as part of the Book-Rich Environments Initiative.
The initiative started in 2017 through a partnership with the federal government, a variety of nonprofits and publishing companies in an effort to bring books and literacy tools to public housing authorities. New Bedford was one of about 40 communities in the country selected to receive hundreds of books.
“It’s been an amazing experience for us, for the participating organizations and for the kids who receive the books,” said Esperanza Alejandro-Berube, the resident services manager at the New Bedford Housing Authority.
In a typical year, the New Bedford Housing Authority is joined by the city’s library and numerous local agencies to distribute the books to families at several in-person events held throughout the summer.
This year, the group packaged the books in blue, canvas bags – or “learning kits” as they called them – and planned to make door deliveries to about 1,200 families.
On Aug. 26, about two dozen masked volunteers representing numerous children’s organizations worked together to assemble these learning kits at the community center on Caroline Street. Long rows of tables were piled high with books, school supplies and information for families. The New Bedford Housing Authority was able to purchase many of the extra supplies through funding from Senator Mark Montigny’s Children’s Equality and Empowerment Fund.
“They’re going to get sidewalk chalk games, board games and different literary activities for the kids to do at home with their parents, which is great because some of the parents are going to be part-time teachers this year,” said Bethany Coito, the youth services librarian at the New Bedford Free Public Library.
Coito has been providing a similar, “to-go” service at the library this summer while the building remained closed to the public. New Bedford’s library, and many of the local libraries throughout the area, have been offering a curbside pickup option, where patrons can call ahead, provide some details about their child or grandchild’s interests, and the librarians will assemble a to-go package for the young reader.
Coito, while grateful for all the volunteers who joined this year’s book distribution effort, said she’ll miss the opportunity to interact with students at the outdoor events, which were canceled due to COVID-19.
“It’s more exciting when we get to do this out in public,” said Coito. “It’s worth it to see how excited they get to receive a free book.”
As one group of volunteers packaged books, volunteers from Coastline’s Foster Grandparent Program filled sandwich bags with markers for the kits in a separate room. Alejandro-Berube said the Foster Grandparents have supported the Book-Rich Environments Initiative for years. This year, the project was especially meaningful for the Foster Grandparents considering that COVID has disrupted classrooms, as well as their ability to interact with students face-to-face, since March.
“You worry about the kids and wonder about how they’re doing,” said Sharon Vargas, as she organized boxes of markers.
With classrooms around the South Coast starting remotely or with limits on who or how many students can enter the schools, the Foster Grandparent volunteers will be spending the start of this school year supporting students from afar, like writing letters or joining them online. Vargas said that contributing to the Book-Rich Environments Initiative gave her the ability to support students despite COVID-19.
“This is so nice,” she said. “It feels like we’re doing something purposeful for the children.”