Hundreds of families, students, educators and school staff in Columbus, Ohio, braved the cold with empty bags and boxes on Saturday, Feb. 26, in a line that wrapped around St. Stephens Community House, eagerly awaiting their chance to choose from some of the 40,000 free books being distributed to their community.
Through the Reading Opens the World Family Literacy and Book Fair hosted by the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) in partnership with St. Stephens Community House, the Central Ohio Labor Council, the AFT and First Book, about 225 families with hundreds of children in tow selected 10 books for their home libraries, and more than 300 educators and school staff each selected 40 books for their classroom collections. Columbus City Schools (the state’s largest school district), day care centers, after-school providers and other community organizations also received thousands of books to ensure children of all ages have greater access to books they love.
The book fair was part of AFT’s multimillion-dollar Reading Opens the World literacy campaign, which launched in December 2021 to support students, educators and families and to foster an ongoing love of reading. The campaign focuses on four areas of literacy support: professional development resources for teachers and school staff to help students read well; research-based resources for parents and caregivers; literacy-focused partnerships between families, communities, teachers and schools; and free books for children and young people.
“What better way to deal with two years of disruption in education and so many other things than to be really intentional about the joy of reading and promoting literacy?” asked AFT President Randi Weingarten in welcoming families and educators during the event. “Reading unlocks a world that unlocks opportunity. It is the key skill that our young people need to be successful in life.”
The fair was held in the gym of St. Stephens Community House, which provides social services and resources for community members of all ages—including a food pantry, after-school and summer youth programs, family case management and senior services. Nearly an hour after the event began, guests were still lined up around the building to get in, and the atmosphere inside the gym was humming with excitement.
“St. Stephens was a phenomenal partner for this event because it has deep roots in the community and works closely with our partner, the Central Ohio Labor Council, on multiple community events throughout the year,” says OFT President Melissa Cropper. “It was unbelievable to see so many parents, children and educators waiting in line for books and to watch hundreds of children turned loose in a gym full of books to choose titles meaningful for them. As a former school librarian, it’s my firm belief that allowing children to pick out their own books sparks a natural love for reading, and that’s the magic we saw happen at this event. It literally brought tears to my eyes.”
Creating Opportunities Through Reading
The books distributed at the fair were a mix of pleasure reading—from board books for babies and toddlers to middle and high school reading-level chapter books, titles on social and emotional learning, and other high-quality resources carefully selected for this event from the First Book Marketplace. There were plenty of choices that reflect the diversity of communities living in Columbus and across the state, including books in Spanish. Many children were so excited about their new books that they sat down and began reading right away. After selecting their books, families and educators posed for selfies in front of the beautiful new AFT bookmobile, which debuted to create additional awareness in the community about the event.
State Rep. Mary Lightbody of Ohio’s 19th District, a former middle school educator and senior lecturer of education at Ohio State University-Newark, volunteered during the event setup and helped families check in to receive their books. “For so many children, access to books creates opportunities they could not have otherwise,” she says. “Ohio has a vested interest in opening up the world to children at an early age—and the need for quality books in Columbus and the surrounding communities is great.”
“Our librarians, teachers and families desperately need these resources, especially with the barriers that have been imposed on our community by COVID-19,” says Marquita Curry, regional family engagement coordinator for Columbus City Schools. “When our teachers learned they could receive 40 high-quality books for their classroom libraries—and that their students could have new books by authors and featuring characters that looked like them—they were very emotional. We can’t put a price tag on the value of events like this to awaken a love for reading in our communities and help create more equitable outcomes for our students.”
In addition to selecting 40 books, all educators and school staff who came to the event and work in a Title I or Title I-eligible school registered with First Book to have ongoing access to high-quality and low-cost books, school supplies and free educational resources. More than 165,000 AFT members are registered with First Book, creating a pipeline that has brought more than 7 million books to classrooms, school and home libraries, and community organizations over the past 10 years. An AFT member from Cincinnati who attended the book fair and has long been registered with First Book noted that she received grant funding from First Book to purchase books to celebrate Black History Month.
Community Engagement to Support Children
More than 100 volunteers from OFT locals, the Central Ohio Labor Council, Columbus City Schools and the community devoted time to prepare books for distribution at the fair. Volunteers worked in coordinated shifts for four days to unpack, sort and organize the books. And many more volunteers helped spread the word about the event to the community through social media, distributing hundreds of fliers and contacting families in need and the educators and school staff who serve them.
Tommy Ferguson, education coordinator of youth services for St. Stephens Community House, worked closely with Columbus City Schools to reach out to families and educators through its Family Ambassador Program. Family ambassadors serve as liaisons between the district’s schools and their communities, advocating for the needs of children and families to increase equity in student learning outcomes.
About 120 ambassadors helped distribute fliers to their schools, advertised the book fair in their weekly newsletters to parents, made calls to and fielded questions from families, received books for teachers who could not attend the book fair, and volunteered at the event to help families and children select age-appropriate books for their home libraries. One family ambassador was a key contact in connecting their school’s librarian to the event to help rebuild a library collection that was destroyed because of building water damage.
The book fair was held in conjunction with the OFT biennial convention so that OFT’s 20,000 members in 55 locals across Ohio could participate. “We love First Book, so when we heard AFT and First Book wanted to distribute 40,000 books in Columbus, there was no way we were going to say no,” says OFT President Melissa Cropper. “Our members and staff helped sort and prep books, and many members took boxes of books back to their classrooms and communities. Seeing and being part of this effort to put more books in children’s hands inspired them to want to bring events like this to their locals. And seeing our members volunteer shows our communities that the union is not just about its members—it’s about filling the needs of the community for the good of our students.”
For Tommy Ferguson, the value of this community book giveaway stretches far beyond the many hours it took to plan and host the event. “It’s about fostering interdependence by bringing teachers, families and community neighbors together for the good of our children,” he says. “A persistent myth about lower-income communities is that they don’t care about their children’s learning and growth. But when hundreds of families line up on a cold winter morning for a chance to find books that excite them—and hundreds more show up to support them and help make that happen—it shows just the opposite. We all want the best for our children.”
Connecting with Families, Communities and Educators
“How do we create joy around reading? Have books that look like the kids who are reading them. Have a family reading night. Have a community school reading night. But you do that by actually having books,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “The AFT is giving out 1 million books this year to kids across America, to teachers across America, to families across America.”
As part of the Reading Opens the World campaign, more book distribution events are planned for communities throughout the nation—and the AFT bookmobile will travel the country with books for schools and community events in rural, urban and low-income areas.
Dozens of reading and literacy resources are also available to support parents and educators on Share My Lesson, AFT’s online platform for instructional resources. And in January, AFT kicked off a series of webinars to support educators and provide research-based, high-leverage instructional resources and practices in literacy grounded in the science of reading. The webinars focus on maximizing reading and vocabulary instruction, improving linguistic equity and inclusion, and meeting the diverse needs of English language learners.
If you are a local leader and want your union to host a Reading Opens the World book distribution—anything from a couple hundred books to support a family reading night at a school to a large-scale 40,000 book distribution—apply for Reading Opens the World funding to select books from First Book.
[Lesley R. Gonzalez]