The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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May 11, 2014

One for the books

College spreads love of reading through program

NEW WILMINGTON — A generosity frenzy at Westminster College ended with 35,000 free books in the hands of Mercer and Lawrence county students, in what Dr. Eileen Morelli hopes is the beginning of a lifelong love of reading for many.

The only college ever to be chosen as part of the national First Book program, faculty and students at the New Wilmington campus worked the better part of a year raising money and enlisting nearly 400 teachers across two counties to sign up for the free book giveaway, according to Morelli.

First Book donated 26 pallets or $500,000 worth of books for ages kindergarten through high school with the $2,000 raised by students who held bake sales, relay races and any other fundraiser they could think of. All of the other eight truckloads were given to metropolitan areas, such as Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Detroit and Tucson, Ariz.

The books from Hyperion Press and Disney Publishing were delivered Tuesday, and dozens of volunteers from the education department and the school’s football team helped unload the books into Orr Auditorium.

More than 200 teachers from both counties flooded the doors Wednesday afternoon, each allowed to gather 100 books to take back to their students. Shouts and squeals and groans of lifting heavy boxes filled the center as teachers raved about the opportunity to give students a book to take home.

Patti Messett, a literary coach at West Hill Elementary School in Sharon, along with the school’s principal Mike Gay, could hardly contain their excitement as they boasted about getting 20 teachers registered for the free books. “That’s 2,000 books for us. We brought a really big truck and two maintenance guys to help carry the books. We’re beyond excited about this opportunity,” Gay said.

Messett, who said, “I lost my reading glasses somewhere in one of these books. I don’t even care. This is so worth it. This is a chance to give our students books to start their own personal libraries. I can’t wait to see their faces when we give them to them,” she said.

After 25 years of emphasizing the importance of reading, Messett said she still loves the genuine happiness she sees on students faces when they get a new book. “They’ll ask ‘can I really take this home?’ and my hope is that they’re reading in bed at night. I want them excited about the possibilities that reading brings,” she said.

“With funding so tight and getting tighter, this is an amazing thing to get these books for free for our students,” Messett said.

Gay said the books were beautiful, big and glossy. “And the way the book looks matters. I’ve never heard of a program like this that helps us get books into kids’ hands. It’s wonderful,” he said.

The First Book organization is a national, non-profit group that has distributed more than 115 million books to children for the last 21 years.

Morelli couldn’t stop thanking all those who helped her organize the event and said the impact went beyond just the book distribution.

“There’s power in teamwork. Two things came out of this. The kids got a brand-new book to keep, and the whole event inspired students to do things they never thought they could,” she said.

“You can move mountains when you’re inspired,” said the diminutive, blue-bespeckled education teacher. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she said, “I’m so grateful. There’s something about reading that molds you into a different person. You become bigger and better than you might have been,” she said, of lessons learned and taught  in her 45-year teaching career.

She interrupted her thoughts to get out her appreciation. “Thank Drs. Richard Dormen and Jane Wood. And Jamie McMinn. Also Dar Henry, Patrick Krantz, Jane Deen, Diana Reed, Owen Wagner, Scott Benzel and Bill Brandt. I have to get this out. This whole wonderful event wouldn’t happen without them.”

“And oh, there’s more. Doreen Matune, Marah Alouse, Bill Mickissick, Diana Kaiazzo and Biz Heinz. And I still know I forgot some I should mention. And Paul, my husband, he’s been a real cheerleader,” she said of the project that began last October.

There were 5,000 books left over, and they will be given to low-income children in Lawrence County through the “Feed to Read” program, coordinated by Dr. Alison DuBois, an assistant professor of education and counseling at Westminster.

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