Portland food pantry book project nourishes young minds

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PORTLAND — For family literacy advocate Pam Leo, providing free books for food pantries to distribute to clients’ children is the best way to ensure their young minds are being fed as well as their bodies.

“I believe learning to read is a human right that should not be jeopardized by parents not having children’s books in the home,” Leo said, “(especially) when there is an abundance of gently used books readily available.”

That’s why she started the Book Fairy Pantry Project, which in its first year of operation has distributed about 3,000 children’s books to food pantries, free summer lunch programs and study centers throughout Portland.

On the Book Fairy Pantry Project website, Leo says that providing opportunities for early literacy is vitally important, not just for the youngsters themselves, but for society at large.

“Unless parents have books to read to their children from the very beginning, children will lack the foundation for learning that gets built by having books in the home,” she said.

On her website Leo also provides a number of statistics, including, “The No. 1 indicator that children will be ready to learn when they arrive at school is age- appropriate children’s books in their home and being read to daily from birth.”

She calls the Book Fairy Pantry Project “a grassroots family literacy movement,” which has the goal of putting “children’s books in the hands of all parents so there will be no child” without access to books of their own.

And, Leo said, ” the beauty of this early literacy project is that there are volunteer opportunities for all ages from preschoolers to seniors.”

“This project promotes children helping children to end illiteracy by donating their outgrown books to children who need them,” she said. “(What) we need are people to donate books and people to volunteer to organize book drives at their schools, day cares, churches and workplaces.”

Leo also accepts books anytime at the Birth Roots office, 101 State St. Donations can be left in the side door entryway.

Leo said her goal with the Book Fairy Pantry Project is to “provide all categories of quality children’s literature. We accept new and gently used board books, picture books, early readers and chapter books.”

Access to books is important, she said, because “two-thirds of the children who are not reading on grade level by the end of third grade will end up on welfare or in prison.”

And, she said, “Illiteracy stunts a child’s ability to get an education. I believe we have an opportunity and an obligation to reduce and one day end illiteracy by distributing our abundance of gently used children’s books to the families who need them.”

“Every parent I have ever met,” Leo added, “has wanted life to be better for their children than it was for them. No matter what their parenting circumstances, they want to provide for their children.

“This project empowers all parents by providing them with the opportunity to choose and bring home books to share. Reading aloud to children not only builds their foundation for literacy, it is one of the easiest and most powerful ways for parents and children to bond with each other.”

Michael Russell, of White Memorial Food Pantry at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Allen Avenue, said the book project “is such a great program for all involved. (It) helps parents get involved with reading to their children.”

“The program (also) helps children develop their English skills through pictures and words. We have volunteers that read to the children and they really enjoy that,” Russell said.

“When the children come (to the pantry now) they ask for the books. It has made the children feel as though there is something special at the pantry for them, as well. It is great seeing the kids’ reading skills improving and so fun to watch them pick out the books they will take home with them.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

A child picks out a book to read at a local food pantry. The books are provided by the Book Fairy Pantry Project, which was started by Portland resident Pam Leo.

A great-grandmother and her great-grandchild look over books donated to a local food pantry through the Book Fairy Pantry Project.

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