A book-smart idea

Diana Hernandez, 7, reads the story of Pinocchio, Diana Hernandez, 7, reads the story of Pinocchio, at Brentwood’s Twin Pines Elementary School. (Nov. 16, 2012) Photo Credit: Nancy Borowick

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Yazmin Espinoza sat patiently while her 4-year-old son squirmed and grew restless at the Women, Infants and Children office of the Nassau County Department of Health in Hempstead.

It was Espinoza's day off, and she was at the office to pick up food vouchers, available to low-income families with children under 5 to help provide supplemental nutrition.

As she tried to answer questions and sign paperwork, her younger son, Matthew, tugged at her jacket sleeve and pulled her toward the door.

"Matthew, you want to go play in the waiting room?" the mother of two asked. "We just have to wait. Mommy is answering some questions now."

But then a question was posed to Matthew: What kind of books do you like?

"Dinosaurs," he replied.

Problem solved.

A WIC staffer held up a book with a brightly colored dinosaur on the cover, and Matthew's eyes lit up. Suddenly he was calm and attentive, sitting on the employee's lap as she flipped through the pages and read quietly to him.

"He loves to read," Espinoza said. She attributes some of the credit for that to the WIC program, which provided free books for Espinoza's older son, Mario, 6, while she was still pregnant.

But WIC credits another organization: First Book-Long Island, a nonprofit group that makes it possible for programs like WIC to include in its services free books for children who otherwise wouldn't have any.

In First Book, founders Kathy Levandoski, Eleanor Poppe and Shawn Vogel found a small way to address a big problem: Give children their own books and instill a lifelong interest in reading.

"There's so much good to giving a child a book," said Levandoski, 53, of Franklin Square. "It's reading, it's an education, it's giving the child a chance to get out of where they could be stuck.

"And they really, really love the books," she added. "When they find out that they can keep it, they're like, 'Really? I can really keep it?' "

Both her sons love to read, said Espinoza, 21, who takes the Long Island Rail Road most days of the week from her home in Hempstead to her waitressing job in Bay Shore. She relies mostly on what she receives from the WIC program to keep their reading habit alive.

"They told me I should read to my children even while I'm still pregnant," she said. "I did it a lot then; I was very strict with the rules. I wanted to be a good mom."

 

Getting involved

In 2003, Levandoski and Poppe, who know each other through their children, decided to find a volunteer project they could work on together.

After spending years involved in their children's schools, both agreed they were most interested in literacy.

"The disparity in the school districts is just so unfortunate for children and so unfair," said Poppe, 53, of Garden City. "The more involved we became with the PTA and the schools, the more we saw this and just wanted to do what we could about it."

The women began doing their own research into children's literacy charities, and when they regrouped, they had both independently discovered First Book -- a national organization run through local advisory boards -- and knew it was the perfect fit.

They contacted Vogel, whom Poppe knew through their church, to round out their advisory board, work for which none of them is paid.

"This just seemed like such a well put-together organization," said Vogel, 56, of West Hempstead. "It made it seem like a very easy thing to do to get brand-new books to kids living below the poverty line."

In the beginning, their main goal was fundraising and spreading awareness about their mission.

"But once it caught on, we received so many requests that we couldn't keep up with it," Levandoski said.

And since officially founding First Book-Long Island in 2005, they have distributed more than 150,000 books to underprivileged children.

 

Seek funds, donations

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First Book-Long Island connects children to books in a number of ways: The local advisory board and its network of volunteers raise funds or garner book donations and distribute them to eligible organizations (one that serves a population that is at least 70 percent below the federal poverty line); or it helps an eligible organization apply for a grant through First Book National, which then gives that organization access to the First Book Marketplace.

In the online marketplace, organizations can use their grants to purchase books at a 50 percent to 90 percent discount.

Poppe said they rely on a network of volunteers to come up with independent fundraisers, and the advisory board works with programs like WIC or individual schools with a low-income population to apply for grants.

"It's a huge advantage to have your money go so far," Poppe said.

Each organization can choose the books that best fit its needs.

At WIC, officials often purchase bilingual books, which help both the children and their parents learn English.

 

'So thankful'

At Twin Pines Elementary School in Brentwood, second-grade teacher Jacqueline Azzizzo chooses one new book a month that she can incorporate into a classroom lesson.

"As a teacher, it's great to actually be able to pick out the books," said Azzizzo, who has been approved for $7,000 in grants for her grade in the past two years.

"The reading program we use is designed to get kids to understand how great books can be. And when they get to take them home and keep them -- I can't really even describe "

Espinoza knows how important books are to her children's lives, because she knows how important they have been in her life.

She started coming to the WIC office when she was 15 and pregnant with her first son. While there she also received books on pregnancy and how to take care of herself.

"I was so thankful for that," she said, adding that she's seen the educational benefits of reading in her sons, as well. "Even when they were babies, they'd see colors, they'd see shapes. They were so interested in everything."

Elaine Felder, 23, of Hempstead, who visited the WIC office the same day as Espinoza, received a book for her 3-year-old son for the first time. She said she'll take books wherever she can get them, because the library is a time-consuming endeavor.

"You have to check them out and then come check them back in," Felder said as she flipped through the alphabet book she received. "I don't really like that, so this means a lot to me."

Andrea Gatewood, director of the WIC program, which received a $15,000 grant from First Book last year, said often the children are happy just to have something of their own.

"For these kids to actually have something that is colorful and new and it's theirs," she said, "it really brightens the faces of the children. They smile."

 

Volunteer spotlight

Wellington C. Mepham High School

In the fall of 2011, seniors at Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore "adopted" First Book-Long Island for the semester, dedicating all of their community service efforts to raising money for the organization, and "setting an example" for the kind of volunteers First Book needs, said co-founder Eleanor Poppe.

Mepham social studies teacher Kerry Dennis said the students raised more than $4,000 for First Book through fundraisers like a "Battle of the Classes" event for students, and 2,500 new children's books through a partnership with the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Carle Place.

The students also had classroom lessons on literacy in the United States.

"Not only did it help children in need, but it promoted the importance of literacy," Dennis said. "It opened their eyes to see that not everyone on Long Island has the same opportunities for learning in school."

 

Sign me up

First Book-Long Island is a local chapter of a national organization that aims to increase access to books for underprivileged children.

First Book-Long Island is looking for entrepreneurial volunteers who can find creative and effective ways to fundraise for the organization.

A volunteer submission form is available on the group's website, firstbooklongisland.org, or you can send an email to longisland_ny@firstbook.org and an advisory board member can help you find a way to volunteer that works for you.

 

Volunteer opportunities

Long Island Head Start, a day care center with 24 locations across Long Island, is in need of volunteers to help read to children, among other opportunities, and to run independent book drives to help stock its bookshelves.

Contact: Carol E. Burnett, cburnett@liheadstart.org, 631-758-5200 ext. 140

 

Anna House, a day care and learning center operated by the nonprofit Belmont Child Care Association, is open to children of New York area racetrack employees between the ages of 6 weeks and 6 years old. The Book Barn at Anna House specifically focuses on childhood literacy and increasing children's access to books. Anna House is looking for book donations as well as volunteers to read to children.

Contact: Executive director Donna Chenkin, belmontchildcare@aol.com, 516-488-1410

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