SILER CITY — A big blue bus rolls through the streets of Justice Mobile Home Park, its driver honking to alert children there of its presence. It almost brings the atmosphere of an ice cream truck, sparking joy and excitement throughout the neighborhood.
But instead of delicious treats, this bus is serving up knowledge — giving books to all who stop by.
It’s Chatham County Schools’ second annual Siler City Bookmobile. The mobile library serves a variety of locations across town to provide summer reading to students at Virginia Cross Elementary and Siler City Elementary.
“The kids get really excited to see us,” said Ngaere Pearce, librarian at Virginia Cross. “It serves a good purpose in giving kids extra things to read over the summer.”
Pearce believes it’s an important initiative to help with a “summer slump,” where out-of-school students aren’t reading as much.
The Bookmobile targets specific neighborhoods in Siler City where students might not have as much access to reading materials. It runs weekly throughout July and August, making pit stops at mobile home parks, community centers and schools. Children who show up enter the bus filled to the ceiling with books of all genres and can check them out on loan or find some to keep from the stack of takeaways.
Allizon Sanchez Hernandez, a 3rd grader at VCE, quickly picked out books about narwhals, an Encanto picture book and a comic about cats. She jumped up and down with a big grin, excited about her new treasures.
“That’s a really good one,” Pearce tells Sanchez Hernandez with a smile.
“I know. I can’t wait,” Sanchez Hernandez said as she practically glided down the stairs of the bus.
Sanchez is just one of the dozens of children who left the Bookmobile happier than when they entered, entranced with wonder about their new books.
With each beep of the book scanner, Pearce offered words of encouragement to the young readers and added a personal touch for each of her VCE students.
“Hopefully we’ll see you at the same time next week,” she told one student. “I think you’re really going to like this one,” she tells another.
Many of the books in the bus were purchased with funding from the Chatham Education Foundation, which provided specific grant money for the two schools to help fill up the Bookmobile.
Children who showed up also received snack bags from the Chatham Outreach Alliance (CORA) Food Pantry and popsicles to help them cool off during the hot summer day.
It’s a family affair, too. Students bring their siblings and parents onto the bus to help them pick out books, and staff from Communities In Schools of Chatham County ride along to help translate for Spanish-speaking families.
“I try to bring a lot of the Latino families into the bus and let them know that we are waiting for them,” CIS’s liaison for Virginia Cross Eva Depaz said. “Our biggest population in the district is Latino students and so we have to think about them whenever we have initiatives like this.”
The library contains books in both English and Spanish, so Spanish-speaking families with children too young to read on their own or Spanish-speaking children can still find ways to expand their minds during the summer months.
Pearce said that’s especially important for this initiative because more than three out of every four students at VCE is Hispanic; SCE has similar numbers.
On average, the Bookmobile checks out more than 50 books each week to about 40 students, but that doesn’t count the number of books taken from the takeaway stacks.
While the program has by and large been a success, it has faced its share of challenges. Pearce said getting the word out to local families who don’t have access to the internet or phone lines has been difficult. The bookmobile also stops by in the middle of the day, when many parents are at work, so getting babysitters to corral large groups of kids to go pick out books isn’t easy.
These challenges have inspired Pearce and Depaz to consider ways of expanding the program in the future like stopping at grocery stores and visiting summer schools during pick-up and drop-off times to increase visitors.
They also want to run the program more frequently during the summer. Pearce said they’ve noticed attendance increase each week. She said starting earlier in the summer would help give kids time to return books prior to the start of the year and help provide more resources to families in need of educational help over the summer.
“This is a great program and we want to get it in the backyards of as many local families as possible,” Depaz said. “I work with these families everyday during the year, but I don’t see them during the summer to help as much as I’d like. This gives us a way to reconnect with our communities and show them we care, regardless of whether school is happening.”
The ultimate goal is to deliver as many books to as many kids as possible, no matter where they go to school. Each time they roll out the bus, several kids who don’t attend either VCE or SCE hop on and look in wonder at the vast display of books — and while they can’t check any out, Pearce and her colleagues still let the children take from the stacks and give them snack bags so they have something to go home with.
“We want to serve any kid we can serve,” Pearce said. “One of the great things about these giveaway books is that we can help everyone have something.”
The Bookmobile will make its final summer trip around Siler City from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 17.
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @b_rappaport.
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