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Wednesday, April 15, 2009 02:56 pm

Local nonprofit ready to donate brand-new books

Two moms team up to improve low-income children’s literacy

First Book-Greater Springfield founders Heather Winkler and Nöel Scott will partner with the Animal Protective League to host “Bark for Books,” to raise funds for new books and showcase animals ready for adoption on Saturday, April 25, at Washington Park.

Before Nöel Scott became a stay-at-home mom, she worked as an early childhood teacher with the local Early Start program. She taught mostly low-income kids and was astounded to see them holding books upside-down or paging through books backward.

“Those were things I learned about when becoming a teacher, but I didn’t think I would actually witness them,” she says.

When Scott — whose children are now 7 and 4 — heard about First Book, a national nonprofit that gives needy children the opportunity to read and take home brand-new books, she knew that Springfield could use its help. She teamed up with Heather Winkler, another area mom who works as the communications director for the Autism Program of Illinois, to launch a local branch.

Scott and Winkler hosted three public meetings, conducted a demographic study that revealed that 60 percent of Sangamon county public school students live in poverty, and established a 12-member board. In December, First Book-Greater Springfield became the sixth chapter in Illinois and one of 270 in the nation.

Last week Winkler received their organization’s first round of “starter” books. She stacked all 3,000, or 800 pounds, of the brand-new books donated by Scholastic in her garage. So far Parents as Teachers, Little Angel Childcare Center, Camp Care-A-Lot and the Family Service Center of Sangamon County have applied to receive their share; each of the groups will receive six books for every child they serve.

First Book strives to give kids at least six books, Scott explains, so they can create their own libraries. The organization’s studies show that increasing the number of books in children’s homes helps them become better readers.

Once the four applicants receive their books, Winkler says, First Book-Greater Springfield will have 2,000 left to give out. Plus, the national organization recently sent 350 more that were donated by its partner publishers and authors.

“We’re here, and we’re ready to give books out,” Winkler says. “We just need people to apply.”

Local organizations are eligible to receive books if they serve 80 percent low-income children, if reading is part of their program and if they are able to distribute books several times a year.

Winkler currently houses 3,000 brand-new books in her garage that were donated to First Book-Greater Springfield from Scholastic. The organization still needs to find homes for 2,000 of them.

When First Book-Greater Springfield raises more funds, local organizations can also apply for dollar amounts and choose their own book titles via an online process. Thanks to partnerships with national publishing companies, First Book allows applicants to purchase books for around $2 per book.

Winkler and Scott both feel responsible for improving children’s literacy in Sangamon County.

Winkler’s mother read to her as a child and penned personal messages to her in the front of her books. Winkler now does the same for her 1- and-2-year old daughters, who own 80 to 100 books between the two of them.

“Every time I go to the store and my kids see a book that they want, I don’t deny them that,” Winkler says. “It hurts me personally to know other kids don’t have books of their own.”

Scott says her daughter, who used to crawl into her son’s crib to read to him, can’t believe that other kids don’t have books at their houses. Scott tells her that sometimes it’s a cycle — if parents aren’t readers themselves or if they don’t have disposable income, books aren’t the first thing on their minds.

First Book helps stop the cycle by giving books to agencies that facilitate reading. Children read the books at school or during an after-school program, Scott says, and then take them home when they’re ready to read on their own.

“Reading has been something that’s important to our lives and to our kids’ lives, and we just want other kids to have that,” Scott says.

First Book-Greater Springfield will partner with the Animal Protective League to host its first official fundraiser at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, April 25. “Bark for Books,” a walk at Washington Park, gives community members the chance to donate money toward books and meet dogs ready for adoption. Participants can bring their own furry companions or walk APL’s alumni dogs. Additionally, the organization’s first four applicants will receive their books during a special kickoff ceremony.

For more information, visit www.Springfieldmoms.org or email firstbookgreaterspringfield@yahoo.com.

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