Tag Archives: Literacy

The Magical World of Words

Jemelia and her brand new book.

“This place is full of magic,” said nine-year-old Jamelia as she stepped on the bus. The ceiling was painted in Starry Night swirls and the shelves were stocked with books, thousands of books. A smile stretched across her face as she imagined the possibilities.

The 2011 Transitions/VSP Success is in Sight Tour traveled to Harlem to be part of the Harlem Children’s Festival. Bess was joined by Eyenstein, the mobile vision clinic from Transitions and VSP in an effort to prepare kids for success in the classroom. While Bess the Book Bus gave away thousands of new books, the Transitions/VSP team gave our kids the gift of healthy sight by providing free eye exams and new glasses.

Harlem Children’s Festival is part of Harlem Week, a summer long celebration of community achievement. A marching band paraded down 135th street to open the event and then thousands of people followed. Local artists and musicians stretched city streets in between tables of hand-crafted jewelry and home cooked food. Pushcarts of Italian Ice weaved through the crowd in search of children with melting face paint. The scene stretched throughout the long city blocks.

A little something for everyone.

Bess and Eyenstein parked amidst it all, between the WHCR live broadcast and the talent show stage. Despite the wall of sound, lines formed as word spread about the free books. Retired teachers told parents. Teens told their friends. Kids grabbed their cousins and neighbors. From the Bluford series to Handy Manny, there was something on board for everyone. Even adults came aboard to ask if we had any books for them. Sometimes they said it with a laugh, sometimes with a whisper.

A father approached the bus with his three children and enthusiastically helped them pick out books. While they were sifting through the shelves, he stopped Jennifer and asked a question so quietly that it begged repeating.

“Do you have anything that will help me read better?”

This question has been common across the country, but it’s still shocking to hear. It takes courage to start that conversation, especially with a stranger. But the answer is always simple. “Yes. We do. You are already doing it”. Bring as many books as possible into your home. Read to your children. Read every day. Read anything you can get your hands on. Ask your librarian for help looking up family literacy initiatives like the National Center for Family Literacy.

Across the country, there are 93 million Americans who read below a fifth grade level. Adults living poverty are more likely to struggle with reading challenges. Those living in poverty also have less access to books. The answer to illiteracy isn’t magic. It is simple. Get more books into the homes of our families. Build home libraries and lifelong readers. Equal access to quality reading materials and other educational resources is critical to the success of this country. The good news? It is easy to do. Every dollar donated to Bess the Bus provides up to three new books for our families, opening worlds of opportunity.

Bess the Book Bus continues on to keep success in sight for children and families across the country. Follow on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for more updates through the trip. Until next time, safe travels through the pages.

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Everything is Bigger in Texas


Jennifer reads to the students of Collins Elementary School while a live feed aired in classrooms across Alief Independent School District

There is an often used adage that always comes to mind when talking about the Lone Star State. It’s the same slogan that’s stamped on t-shirts, oversized belt buckles and six pound steak challenges. And although it isn’t the state’s official motto, we wanted to test it as the Transitions/VSP Success is in Sight Tour took Bess the Book Bus deep into the heart of Texas.

First glance at the lay of the land made the saying seem like an exaggeration. Small cities were spread thinly between cornfields and cow pastures. The scenery stayed the same for the first four hours. Suddenly, the low-lying horizon was interrupted by a fast rising skyline. Interstate 10 rolls west into Houston where the road grew five lanes wide and overpasses stacked three tiers high. It’s true what they say, everything is bigger in Texas.

The sun was still shining as we crossed the Harbor Bridge into to Corpus Christi. Our ambitions matched our altitude at 243 feet. From there, we could see the big things on the horizon. Help from our sponsors at Transitions/VSP, Citgo Fueling Good and Townsend Press promised to boost the next five school visits to some of the biggest in Bess the Book Bus history.

We arrived at George Evans Elementary early Thursday morning and were greeted by ambassadors from Citgo. They came with boxes and boxes of brand new books in tow. The local refinery has been embracing the Fueling Good spirit held a book drive. More than 400 books were collected, which helped replenish our shelves after events in Alabama and Mississippi. We followed the folks from Citgo to the next event at Oak Park Elementary School and gave away another 200 books. The good deeds and good reads, however, were only an opening act for the headlines in Houston.

A few days before the Success is in Sight tour started, Jennifer received a startling call from the the Citgo Headquarters in Houston. They wanted to know what was the largest group of students she’s reached in a read along. Her previous record was set in 2010, when all 500 students of Bryant Elementary School sat for a special Dr. Seuss Day event. An event on that scale would hardly register on the Texas scale of feats. Citgo had something much bigger in mind.

Plans were made to read to all of the kindergarteners in the Alief Independent School District. There are more than 3,500 kindergarteners spread through 100 classrooms in 20 schools across 34 miles. Getting that many children in one place and holding their attention during even the silliest of stories would blow past Texas’s special brand of big and right into the realm of gargantuan.

Arrangements were made to use AISD’s video conference capabilities to broadcast Jennifer’s read alongs into every kindergarten classroom across the district. Back-to-back performances were broadcasted from Collins and Hearne Elementary Schools. Thanks to Citgo employees and Townsend Press, more than 45,000 books were collected in Houston. Transitions/VSP also added to the spectacle by giving the gift of healthy sight. Three thousand vouchers for free eye exams and glasses were distributed through the schools to each of the students on free or reduced lunch. The value of Transitions/VSP’s contribution totaled $1.15 million! It was incredible to have such amazing sponsors get on board and give the students such amazing gifts.

After the readings, Bess the Book Bus was invited back to the headquarters for an ice cream social celebrating Houston’s book drive. Employees donated more than 400 brand new books to Bess the Book Bus. Gustavo Valasquez, vice president of supply and marketing at Citgo, applauded everyone for their efforts, including Kate O’Brien who raised 72 books.

The overall impact of our time in Texas was 4,870 books to 4,100 children. The trip continues next into Louisiana to visit Lake Charles and New Orleans. Keep up to date on the Success is in Sight Tour by following Bess the Book Bus on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and <a href="http://www.youtube.com/bessthebookbusYouTube.

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Success in in Sight!

The open road always offers its fair share of the unexpected. The first week of the 2011 Transitions/VSP Success is in Sight tour started off with more adventure and adversity than we could have ever imagined. There are more than 50 stops planned, spanning six months and 44 states, but all of that was at risk after a stuck clutch on Day 2.

While driving to Moorhead, MS, an angry rumble came from under the hood. The rev-roar worsened as we slowed. Hill-Kelly Chrysler in Pensacola confirmed our worst fears – oil entered the transmission and caused a fatal clog. Bess would have to spend a week in the shop while the transmission was replaced. The cost of repairs totaled a quarter of the overall operating budget for the tour. The cost, if not recovered through sponsorship or donations, threatens to keep Bess the Book Bus from visiting 5,000 children and keep 20,000 books out of under served communities.

However disheartening this news was, there was only one option- move on. We took this opportunity to divert to Tuscaloosa, AL with Eyenstein, Transitions/VSP’s mobile eye clinic, and address an immediate need in the wake of devastating tornadoes. A string of phone calls and last minute e-mails, all stemming from a Facebook posting from author Sharon Creech, sent us packing to help out with Books for Bama. We loaded up the rental Dodge Caravan and set forth for Tuscaloosa.

Five days had passed since the tornadoes tore across the city and the damages were still being assessed. Empty classrooms at Alberta and Holt elementary schools were ripped apart by winds exceeding 130 mph. Bess the Minivan rolled up on the first day of classes for the displaced students. Students and teachers displayed incredible courage and carried on in a very difficult time. Each of the students participated in a raucous story time and received a new book to take home. Each school also received contributions to their classroom libraries, which were lost in the storms.

Bess was also able to work alongside Eyenstein at the Red Cross shelter. The Belk Center at Bowers Park was filled to fit 500 displaced children and families. Its parking lot was packed with people trying to help. Mobile shower units, medical examiners and even a phone station stood by and showed their support. After two days of visits to schools and shelters, Bess the Book Bus distributed more than 1,700 books. The five hour drive home was spent in a humble silence. We were awed by the strength of a city, state and country that banded together to help their neighbors.

Upon our return to Pensacola, we were happy to find that Bess was ready to go two days ahead of schedule. This allowed us to keep our promises to some amazing students in the Mississippi Delta. Plans for this event were first made in September 2010, after a teacher at Moorhead Middle School saw Bess on CNN.

Chloe Kannan, a first-year Teach for America teacher, explained the difficulties students face. The city of Moorhead is small, spanning less than four square miles, and close to a third of its population lives below the poverty line. Literacy rates are low in the Delta, but Mrs. Kannan has been fostering the love for reading in her students. At Bess’s request, Townsend Press sent support to the school in December, a holiday surprise of more than 300 new Bluford series books. We also made a promise to visit during our 2011 Success is in Sight tour. We are so glad we did.

The reception from the students and faculty was one of disbelief and true appreciation. All 150 made their way on to the bus and picked books from some of their favorite authors, including Ellen Hopkins, Paul Langan and Dan Gutman. Book deliveries were also made to Rosser Elementary and Greenville Middle School.

We have completed only the first of many planned stops and already reached more than a 1,000 students. The rest of the nation is waiting to be explored, and are students waiting to have their minds opened. Follow along the adventure with daily updates on Facebook and Twitter. Next stop: Corpus Christi with our partners at Citgo!

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