United Way book distribution shares lifelong gift of reading

By Renée K. Gadoua

As a veteran of educational and literacy programs, Debbie Stack has witnessed up close and personal the power of distributing books to children. “It’s a big deal,” said Stack, co-chair of the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County. “They love to have something new that is theirs. I hand them a book and they ask, ‘This is for me? I can keep it?’ It becomes very special in building their own library.”

Young readers in Onondaga County will have chance to start – or add to – their personal libraries at the Dec. 15 Salvation Army Christmas Bureau distribution at the Oncenter in Syracuse. Registered families will receive food baskets and toys, and United Way of Central New York will provide new books for each child (newborn to teen).

The United Way is collecting new books through Dec. 13. Donors can drop off books at United Way, 980 James St. Donors also can shop in-person and purchase a book at Barnes & Noble in Dewitt and drop it off at the register or order a book from our Amazon Wish List and have it shipped to United Way (note: Amazon shipping deadline has passed).

The book drive is one of three collections the United Way is collaborating on this holiday season. Earlier this month, the agency distributed more than 1,000 personal care packages, created from donated hygiene items like soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes. United Way and COR Development Company are collecting new and gently used coats and other items through Jan. 2 in a campaign called Share the Warmth.

United Way of CNY has been a partner in the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County, since its inception in 2007. The Coalition works to promote books and reading as part of a strategy to improve reading proficiency and encourage academic success with the goal of achieving 100% literacy countywide.. The coalition brought the Dolly Parton Imagination Library (DPIL) to two Syracuse zip codes in 2010 and expanded it countywide five years later.

About 15,000 Onondaga County children receive a book monthly through the DPIL. The program has delivered more than 1 million books since May 2010. The aim is to create a 60-book library and foster a lifelong love of reading, said Kim Kemp, DPIL program director for the literacy coalition.

“Reading to children from birth and onward is essential,” Kemp said. “The simple act of consistently reading to a child actually develops the skills necessary for children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.”

Reading to children strengthens relationships between parents and children. And it helps develop listening and focusing skills; language and vocabulary development; and new concepts and lessons.

Families look forward to monthly book deliveries, and reading becomes part of their routine. “Parents said that receiving books during the pandemic shutdown gave their children a much-needed sense of normalcy during a very uncertain time,” Kemp said.

Parents often say that DPIL books created the opportunity to discuss topics like kindness, generosity, literacy, and charity with their children.

Stack has seen the popularity and power of books through her work with the Literacy Coalition, as former vice president of education and community engagement at WCNY and as a grandparent. She and her grandson, a reluctant reader, read a book together over the phone. “His reading level went up,” Stack said.

She’s watched long, eager lines form early for community events that include book giveaways. “When Nojaim’s closed [on Syracuse’s Near West Side], the food pantry was bringing food,” she recalled. “I stood at the back of the line and gave out books. People were almost as hungry for the books as they were for the food.”

Reading, Stack said, is central to academic success. It’s also the key that opens children’s eyes to all the possibilities the vast, diverse world offers. “It feeds imagination,” she said. “It feeds our soul. You can imagine yourself to be anywhere.”

The holiday book collection and giveaway reminds people not to take books and reading for granted. “Not everyone can make it to the library,” Stack said. “To have something that sits on your shelf and that is yours is very special. When you give a book, you can’t even imagine where that book might take someone and the impact it may have on a life.”

Renée K. Gadoua is a writer and editor living in Manlius.