PAWTUCKET — Cumberland resident Jocelynn White will never forget one of her first assemblies as a “Books Are Wings” volunteer.
Two years ago, she and President Monique Renaud — also White's aunt — decided to bring in a professional storyteller to read to children during a “BAW” Book Party at the city's Fallon Elementary School.
After the duet had given to students the books of their choice, she was stunned at her observation.
“We were looking to add more bells and whistles to the event; we had refreshments, everything,” White explained in Renaud's Pawtucket home office Wednesday afternoon. “We expected all the kids to be enthralled by the storyteller, who was nice enough to volunteer his time.
“Once they got the books in their hands, they sat on the floor and began reading them,” she added. “I thought, 'How simple!' We didn't have to put together all of these additional events, and we didn't have to entertain them. It completely blew my mind.”
White, now the “Books Are Wings” Project Manager, can't wait to deliver more books to schools in both Woonsocket and Pawtucket over the next few weeks.
On Tuesday, April 5, she and Renaud will offer two free books each to all 400 youngsters at Globe Park Elementary in Woonsocket. Two days later, they will issue to the approximate 700 students at Villa Novan Middle School a book each, then do the same at Hamlet Middle School the following morning.
And, thanks to help from Pawtucket Credit Union and Pawtucket Red Sox officials, Renaud and White will deliver hundreds more books to those in third-sixth grades at Agnes Little Elementary. Of course, there's a caveat.
“We're working in conjunction with the PCU and PawSox to challenge those children to read their books,” White indicated. “We'll also give them a bookmark that must be signed by a teacher or parent when the child's finished.
“That signed bookmark then becomes a free ticket to the PawSox game on May 26 (against the Indianapolis Indians at 7:05 p.m.),” she continued. “The students will be recognized over the P.A. system that night. I know Kristen Rojas (PCU Director of Financial Literacy and Community Relations) is really excited about this event.
“I went to Kristen in January to ask for her support, and — when she told me about this idea — we were very impressed. It's great, isn't it? … I selected Agnes Little because of its proximity to McCoy Stadium — it's right across Division Street — and I knew the children and parents would have no problem getting there. This is the first time we've done this, and we're thrilled about it.”
If you were wondering how “Books Are Wings” came to be, it began in 1998 as a brainchild of former St. Rep. Elizabeth “Betsy” Dennigan of District 62 (East Providence, Pawtucket).
“To the best of my knowledge, Betsy lived near a school in East Providence, and she would have parents of local school children knock on her door,” Renaud said. “They'd ask her if she could get books for their kids to read.
“She decided to go to her neighbors and ask them to donate books because they needed more of them in their homes,” she added.
Slow but sure, Dennigan “recruited” her family and a group of dedicated volunteers who were committed to literacy, reading, libraries and schools — not to mention exhibiting to children how fun reading can be.
They asked for donations of new or “gently-used” books from neighbors and friends, then began distributing them to local day-care and community centers. As word spread, the amount of books delivered to the Dennigan abode multiplied dramatically.
“Besty had been running it out of her car trunk,” Renaud chuckled. “It got to a point where she received so many, she'd take them to Boys & Girls Clubs and YMCAs, then began collaborating with libraries. She sold them the concept, and told librarians, 'If you get the kids here, I'll bring the free books and refreshments, and read them a story. I'll even get face-painters and crafts for them.' She called it a 'Book Party.'”
How Renaud met Dennigan is a story in itself. Renaud, a former vice president of administration and finance at the Gold Machinery Co. in Pawtucket, chose to retire early to return to college. While chasing her Bachelor's in Political Science, she began an internship with Dennigan at the State House.
“Well, we bonded, and she's really a terrific lady,” Renaud noted. “I admired her skills, and how much she enjoyed helping people. One day, she looked at me and said, 'I founded this organization, and we need some good board members. Will you help?'
“I was very excited. I thought this is what I wanted to do — help kids with literacy.”
On May 13, 2003 (Renaud rattled off the date with ease), “Books Are Wings” incorporated into a non-profit organization, one governed by a Board of Directors.
While partnering with Citadel Communications, the Ocean State Library Network and local school districts, “BAW” has provided children throughout Rhode Island with over a half-million free books. It also hosts free parties to promote both family fun and literacy.
Some such book parties incorporate story-telling, cookies and milk, music, sing-alongs and face-painting.
“These added elements aim to motivate children to read more, and instill the motion that reading is fun,” Renaud said.
As a graduate of Mount St. Charles Academy and the University of New Hampshire, White had been a special education teacher, but — after she got married — began looking for either volunteer or part-time work.
When Aunt Monique asked her to hitch on with “BAW,” she jumped at the chance.
“The simplicity of it is amazing,” White offered. “We give them a free book to take home and read, and we tell them it's theirs, they can keep it. I went to Beautiful Beginnings, a day-care center in Providence, and Pawtucket Day Nursery, and brought books with me. It's incredible. You give them a book, and they stare at you and say, 'You mean this is mine? I can take it home with me?'
“They just smile,” she continued. “The greatest 'Ah-ha!' moment is when you're talking to someone, then turn around and see 15 kids sitting on the floor reading. They really can't wait.”
Stated Renaud: “We put book plates inside the front covers, and they line up with the ones they choose to have their names written on that plate. The challenge is to ask them to spell their names, and even that helps them with literacy. They get such a sense of ownership, like 'This book is really mine!'
“We also encourage them, if they believe reading their particular book has become old or no longer a challenge, to pass it on to a friend or give it back to us for recycling.”
Because of those gifts to the three Woonsocket schools and Agnes Little in Pawtucket, Renaud and White are looking for more donations to its book collection. Honestly, they'll take anything in good condition — including Dr. Seuss, Goosebumps, Magic Treehouse and Nancy Drew. Naturally, sports books are a favorite of some boys.
“They come from ordinary residents, Boy or Girl Scouts and even schools themselves; they donate back to us,” White said. “Actually, Borders and Barnes & Noble both have done book drives for us. They'll put out a bin and have a 'Buy One, Get One Free' sale. Folks will place the free book in the bin, and they give them to us.
“Books for middle school students are my biggest challenge right now,” she continued. “I find people tend to give us books their kids read when they were little, but not chapter books they read as they got older. We don't get many for those in fifth to eighth grade.”
Renaud indicated there's a great demand for chapter books.
“We find that even younger children want them; After they choose one, I'll tell them it may be a bit too advanced for them, but they'll say, 'I can read on this level!' It's so encouraging to see the kids' reactions.”
White currently is in search of those books geared to the older audience to refurbish the supply the organization will lose with its upcoming book events.
On March 3, at the Pizzeria Uno in Smithfield, “BAW” officials will conduct a “dough-raiser.” If customers present a “BAW” coupon to their waiters at any time that day, Uno's will give 10 percent of his or her food bill to the organization. (Coupons are available at www.booksarewings.org ).
Likewise, on June 3 (6-8 p.m.), “Books Are Wings” will hold a wine-tasting fundraiser at The Promenade in Providence. They hope to raise $5,000 to aid in operating costs, such as transportation and storage.
“I'm really on '24/7,' so it's a full-time job,” Renaud said. “As president, I'm in charge of administration, so I make sure everything's running smoothly. I have to take care of all the finances, grant writing, fundraising activities, etc.
“We've also created a charity team for the Cherry Tree Running Festival (which will consist of a half-marathon, youth 1-kilometer run as well as the Kyle Coutu 5K on May 21 in Pawtucket),” she added. “We're looking for people to join our team and sponsor our runners (in the 5K). I'm also hoping to set up a table, so people can learn about our program and/or donate books.
“We're also in the midst of our 'Friends' campaign; we're looking to add more people to our list of friends who annually donate to us, and support our quest to provide students throughout the state a book.”
Mentioned White: “Being a teacher, I love reading a book called 'Giraffes Can't Dance' to the kids. I tell them it takes place in Africa, and that I'm going to take them on an adventure. I ask them to close their eyes and imagine. I also tell them that a book can give them wings to travel to another place.
“It's a basic problem in the United States today; the high school dropout rate is so high. Reading is the core to their education, so if they develop that desire to read at a younger age, that rate wouldn't be so high.”
For more information, visit www.booksarewings.org ., or call Renaud at (401) 965-5103. The fax number is (401) 725-0512.