School sends home ‘literacy baskets’

Nomaan Merchant

For many low-income families in Evanston, purchasing books for the home can be difficult, especially when more urgent needs must be met first.

Such families must usually rely on public libraries to fill the void left in the home, leaving children at a disadvantage.

But at Willard Elementary School, 2700 Hurd Ave., teachers created a program to provide low-income children with their own books.

Dubbed “Literacy Baskets,” the program so far has supplied 45 families with miniature libraries, with material ranging from coloring books to longer storybooks for older children.

The school’s principal, Shelley Carey, started the initiative.

“We wanted to get books into the homes that would stay in the homes,” Carey said.

Students who receive free lunches from the school are eligible for literacy baskets. The school targets the families of older students before giving books to younger students.

The northwest Evanston school draws students from a section of Evanston’s Fifth Ward, which is predominantly low income.

The entire program is driven by volunteers and funded by grants from outside sources. Publishing company Scott Foresman donated about 15 boxes of books for this year’s project, Willard teacher Noelle Stewart said. Stewart also orders books from Scholastic Book Clubs.

The baskets for the books and the plastic to wrap the baskets in is also donated by members of the Willard community.

This year one student donated stuffed animals for each basket as part of a Bat Mitzvah project.

About 15 faculty members stayed after school for one day to assemble the baskets, Stewart said.

Last year, the program supplied 20 families with books. Willard expanded the program by five families this year. Families that received books last year also received smaller supplements of books this year.

“The books are a chest of treasure that reveals their worth to only those who open and read,” read one letter to Carey supporting the program.

Carey said the school tailors each basket to the receiving family. Families with younger children receive coloring books, for example. Families generally receive more books pertaining to their backgrounds, though Carey said the mother of one black family once specifically asked to receive books about Asian Americans.

“She said her family didn’t know that much about Asian Americans and she wanted to teach them about Asian culture,” Carey said.

The baskets have inspired children to read more and learn about new cultures. In a letter, one woman thanked Carey for helping her son “turn over a new leaf.”

“We now go to the library once a week – everyone checks out a few books of their choice,” she wrote. “Our front room looks like a library.”

Carey said she enjoys giving out the baskets, which are delivered to individual homes. She said children waiting in anticipation run out of their doors to get the baskets.

“It’s like we’ve come in with candy,” Carey said. “They’re crazy.”

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]