Our tagline is “Ethics in Action since 1876.” Ethical Culture was founded on a premise of putting ethics into action, a premise to which we remain firmly committed. In this column we recognize and celebrate the ethical actions in which our members are involved here at Ethical, independently, and with other organizations, and invite you — members and guests — to participate. This month, we invite you to join our Social Service Board’s My Own Book Foundation volunteers.
By Vince Brancato, Ethical NYC Social Service Board Member
According to the mission statement at their website, “The My Own Book Program was established by the Freeman-Harrison Family Foundation in 1999 to support child literacy and foster a love of reading among the most disadvantaged of New York City’s children, many of whom have never owned a book they could call their own.
For more than 20 years, the program has been enabling New York City third graders to choose and buy their own books. It’s a wonderful and beautifully successful program — currently active in 47 Title One schools.
Every third-grader in these schools gets to participate. There’s an initial session during which teams of two volunteers meet with the teachers, either on the same day or a couple of days in advance of meeting with each of the classes (about 30 minutes per class). Most schools have four or five third-grade classes. The volunteers talk with the children about the difference between borrowing books from library and owning books, about the different types of fiction and nonfiction, and about their trip to Barnes & Noble. Later, the teachers will work with the students to help them make lists of the types, and often titles, of the books they’d like to purchase, with an eye towards selecting books in more than one genre. A few weeks later, the volunteers will meet the teachers and classes at Barnes & Noble and each child will select $50 worth of books.
The volunteers, teachers, and Barnes & Noble personnel help the children, with the reminder, “Don’t choose a book by its cover.” They are advised to read the first few pages to be sure they understand the words and content and that they like the book. It can take as long as two hours, during which they make choices regarding what they want and what they can afford within that $50 budget. They make decisions, for example, as to whether to buy the hardbound or softcover book, often choosing the paperbacks so they can get more. For most of the kids, this is the first time they have been in a bookstore, and their first time having control over $50 of self-directed purchasing power.
For us, the volunteers, it is so rewarding to help in what becomes a positive and memorable experience for these children. The proof comes in the follow-up visit to the classes about a month later. The children have been told to read at least one of their books by then, and in the course of the visit they have the opportunity to tell about the book. In most cases, by the time of that visit most of them have read all the books they’ve bought and are eager to share.
Both teacher and student anecdotes confirm that the My Own Book program increases reading skills and most often inspires a love (or, at the very least, a “like”) of reading. The kids are great; they have fun and appreciate what you’re bringing to them. Their excitement is contagious.
What does it take to qualify as a volunteer? Easy question. One does not need a background in education or library studies, just a willingness to invest your time and patience. For your first time, you’ll “shadow” an experienced volunteer team through each of the phases of the program and ask and have answered any questions.
For some of the volunteers, the oncea-year four-part process — which usually amounts to four-to-six days) is just fine. Others choose to participate in more than one school and are most welcome to do so.
To learn more, speak with Carole Chamlin, Susan Horowitz, and/or Bob Berger. Bob’s been volunteering the past few years and Carole’s been with the program practically since its inception. Many volunteers are not members of Ethical NYC.
If you are interested in volunteering with the My Own Books Foundation, contact Burt Freeman at 212-249-3765.