When Collier County students went back to school a few weeks ago, some lucky young people brought reading skills kept sharp over the summer thanks to a longtime non-profit organization.
Books for Collier Kids proactively came to the students when they attended the popular Hot Summer Nights events sponsored by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office around the county. Amid the festive mix of safe and supervised games, music, movies and snacks, deputies helped students select 10,000 books to keep, donated by the non-profit.
The program helped bring Books for Collier Kids’ total to more than 1.5 million books distributed to toddlers through second graders since 2005, when it was known as First Book and linked to only the poorest neighborhood schools. Now the program is in 29 of 36 Collier County elementaries. “As affluent as Collier is,” Books for Collier Kids’ Chairwoman Sallie Williams said, “you don’t have to go far to find families in need, especially with inflation.”
Books for Collier Kids Chairwoman Sallie Williams
Putting the magnitude of that 1.5 million total into perspective, those books, at 12 inches apiece, laid end to end would reach farther than Fort Myers to a beacon of fairy tales at Orlando’s Magic Kingdom, according to a Spotlight calculation.
Put another way, the total is more than 10 times the size of the current children’s books collection at all of the Collier County Public Library’s 10 locations, Library Program Specialist Janet Pereira reported.
Sharing books is the non-profit’s sole job, leaders said, which helps promote literacy and combat academic failure, delinquency, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, unemployment and dependence on public assistance.
The per book investment is $2, Williams said, with a $500 gift covering a book per month for an entire classroom for a school year.
“Reading truly is fundamental to success in school and life,” Sheriff’s Diversity Outreach Coordinator Sgt. Natalie Ashby said in a press release. “…So, partnering with Books for Collier Kids fits nicely with our promise to protect and serve our community.”
Sergeant Natalie Ashby, diversity outreach coordinator, Collier County Sheriff’s Office, distributing books at a popular Hot Summer Nights event.
Williams says those core values appeal to donors, such as community civic and business mainstay Ed Morton. He told Spotlight: “I was introduced to books when I was quite young by my mother. Living in the Florida Keys in the 1950s, books transported me around the world, exposing me to different cultures and people.
“I believe in the power of education to change the world for the better and want to assist [Books for Collier Kids] in introducing books to children, unleashing the power of their dreams and imagination.”
Mary Polizzotto, BCK volunteer coordinator and board member, brings a lifetime of experience with education and literacy from kindergarten through college. She spoke to fundamentals: “Since 2003 I began to hear from the volunteers (most of them without teaching experience) that they were surprised at how many children were totally unfamiliar with how to handle a book. These observations matched what I knew from educational research. Children who are considered ‘economically disadvantaged’ have had little or no contact with anything written – not even junk mail – prior to entrance in a formal educational program.”
In addition to the Sheriff’s Office, the all-volunteer BCK – which has no office or gala fundraisers – collaborates with more than 20 local organizations. They include Collier County Public Schools, Friends of Foster Children Forever, Fun Time Early Childhood Academy, Habitat for Humanity of Collier County, Guadalupe Center, Grace Place for Children and Families, and Christ Child Society of Naples.
The Habitat and Christ Child linkage is especially moving. Habitat CEO Lisa Lefkow said her volunteers build bookcases for “a lovely array of new books” from BCK, with donations from Christ Child, when families move into their new homes.
“We hope that you will read these books together, moms and dads to kids, kids to brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends together,” Lefkow likes to say at Habitat dedications. “We hope that when you have outgrown one book, you will pass it along to another friend so they might share your love of reading.”
Indeed, Williams said, students and the books – all of them Englishonly – inspire parents to learn the language.
Elizabeth Alves, Collier County Public Schools’ associate superintendent of teaching and learning, calls BCK “an outstanding community partner in our efforts to increase student achievement in reading fluency and comprehension.”
“Our students truly enjoy taking the books home to share with their families,” she added, “which allows younger siblings to also receive the benefits of this wonderful program.”