Children know her as The Book Lady. Volunteer Jeanne Romeo maintains a carefully curated, 3-shelf bookcase in the front room of the Holly Springs Food Cupboard. When families show up to pick up their groceries, kids who know what Jeanne is all about race towards her in her little corner. They know they’ll be walking out with more than just food; they’ll get to take with them their very own book.
Jeanne got the idea several years ago after a good friend of hers started a book program in an inner-city ER. The ER had been giving out stickers and candy to patients and their siblings as they came in, but upgraded to books after learning more about the impact of literacy on a child’s development. The program flourished. Jeanne’s friend found that children took to well-loved books even more than they did the shiny new ones.
But you might say the idea was born 43 years ago, when Jeanne was reading a book to her then-3-month-old son. Jeanne says it’s something she’ll never forget. There was one page that read something like, “Quack Quack goes the duck,” and Jeanne’s son’s face lit up when she read it. Jeanne thought her son must just like the silly sound of the words. But what Jeanne found was that this little infant soon learned which page came before the “Quack Quack” page, and he started to anticipate its coming. A 3-month-old baby learning about plot! It’s never too early, Jeanne will tell you.
The research is strong: children in families with incomes below the poverty line are less likely to be read aloud to every day according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education. Jeanne often has to make her case to the parents of the Cupboard’s littlest clients. Many of them think reading doesn’t come into the picture until a child is in school. In fact, we know that daily reading is probably the best gift you can give a child from the very moment he or she is born.
The beauty of the program is the heart that’s behind it. Jeanne listens as clients are checking in to get a sense of the children’s ages and what they might be interested in. She has one little boy who loves Thomas the Train so she sets those books aside for him. If she sees a pregnant mom with older children, she’ll reach for one of her books about being a big brother or big sister.
Brooke, a local middle school teacher, recently started her own campaign to bring books to the Cupboard. “I thought it was amazing that they were feeding not only [kids’] bodies but their minds and imaginations,” she says. Volunteers at the Cupboard wrap brand new books and provide them to parents to give as Christmas presents. Brooke’s efforts will mean many local children will receive something extra this holiday season.
When Jeanne suggested the book program several years ago, concerns were raised about the Cupboard’s very limited space. Her solution? She stores donations on a shelf in her garage and carefully restocks the Cupboard’s shelves weekly. Also, she makes sure people donate what is actually needed.
So before you toss your children’s old books, consider passing them on to someone else in our community, even if they aren’t in like new condition. Jeanne is especially interested in baby board books and books for beginning readers. She says that if having books gives even just one child a slight edge upon entering Kindergarten, then in her mind, it’s all worth it.
If you have books you would like to donate to the Holly Springs Food Cupboard, please contact the Cupboard first due to the very limited space available. You can do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org