Chatham Education Foundation’s ‘Books on Break’ program brings joy to students

More than 14,000 free books given to K-8 students across the county

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SILER CITY — Harley Gaddis is shopping for new books, but don’t let the Silk Hope kindergartener’s sparkly pink unicorn shirt fool you: She’s picking out books about sharks, spooky stories and animal facts.

And she’s excited to bring the new books home to show her mom.

“I get to keep these books forever,” Gaddis said. “My mom used to read to me, but now I can do it all by myself.”

Gaddis is one of many students participating in the Chatham Education Foundation’s “Books on Break” program. The program provides free, new books to students throughout the county with the aim of building at-home libraries for some of the area’s most economically disadvantaged schools.

The five participating schools in CEF’s most recent distribution included Silk Hope School, Virginia Cross Elementary, Pittsboro Elementary, Bonlee Elementary and Siler City Elementary. The program spanned almost the entire school day with each class rotating in and out to select their books in 20-minute intervals.

Books on Break made its rounds to the five schools over the course of 12 days. The event itself usually takes two days — one for setup and one for the actual book shopping. Leftover books from the event are kept at the CEF office to be used again next year.

The program is designed to help prevent the “summer slide.” According to Scholastic, the summer slide is a regression in academic proficiency due to summer break. To prevent the slide, Kindergarten through 2nd grade students chose five books to take home, 3rd through 5th grade chose four books and 6th through 8th grade chose three books.

The teachers also get five books for their classrooms.

Dana Teague is a 2nd grade teacher at Silk Hope School. She said the program has a twofold benefit because it’s helpful to her and a lot of fun for her students.

“They absolutely love it,” Teague said. “I get to tell these kids the books are free to them because they have a community that loves them and values education.”

Teague said she appreciates seeing the students enjoying reading and exchanging books with their peers.

This is CEF’s sixth year for Books on Break, and Executive Director Jaime Detzi said the program has gotten better each year.

“It’s important for these kids to have easy access to books at home,” Detzi said. “This was a tough year because we’ve expanded, but so far it’s been going well.”

Over those six years, the program has expanded from just two schools in its first year to five this year. The program is funded by a variety of grants and sponsors including BOLD Companies, Allen Tate Realtors, Central Electric and Duke Energy.

Sarah Linkhorn, CEF’s marketing manager, said a variety of stakeholders are involved in the program including grant funders, business sponsors and individual volunteers.

“It takes a village of community members to bring this program to life,” Linkhorn said. “Between our book sorts, deliveries, setup days and event days, we have gratefully had a total of almost 90 volunteers and three staff members who have made this program a success.”

Mary Kolek, CEF’s board chairperson, said in her five years on the board she’s seen this program grow firsthand. Giving books to kids has priceless value in supporting local public schools.

“It’s so important to show the kids and the teachers that somebody is advocating for them,” Kolek said. “When you see them get that excited over a book like that, it just keeps you going.”

As each class enters the Silk Hope School library, now piled high with new books, Detzi gives a short speech to the elementary schoolers, telling the kids if they read 15 minutes every day, they can read more than 2 million words per year. Gaddis and her peers in Kim Fuquay’s kindergarten and 1st grade class are astonished by such a large figure.

“Woah, my brother can’t even count that high,” one student of Gaddis’ classmates said.

Angie Brady-Andrew, the principal at Silk Hope School, said the program is important for the kids’ development.

“This is amazing,” Brady-Andrew said. “Kids get to take ownership, and pick their own books and find something that interests them. Look how excited they are.”

This is Silk Hope’s second year participating in Books on Break. Brady-Andrew said she hopes the school keeps engaging with the program because she believes it gives autonomy to the students to take ownership over their literacy and education.

Each table in the library is marked by grade to inform the students which books they can choose from. The books range in difficulty from “Click Clack Moo Cows That Type” to a compilation of poems by Edgar Allen Poe.

Some of the students with higher reading skills drift toward the chapter books, while others are simply drawn to the bright colors on the cover. James Witkowski has a different strategy — he picks up a book, flips to a random page and decides if he can read it. He said he’s been on the hunt for a basketball book.

“I want it to have a basketball and end with a W in the title because that’s my last name,” Witkowski said.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t find exactly what he was looking for, but there were plenty of basketball books for Witkowski to choose from.

After he and his classmates picked their five books, they put them in a tote bag — along with a bookmark reminding them to read 15 minutes every day. As they waited for the rest of the class to finish shopping, some students gathered on the floor of the library and began reading their new books together.

“I love this, I can’t get over it,” Detzi said as she looked at the kids reading. “I mean this is what it’s all about.”

This year’s Books on Break program distributed more than 14,000 books to 2,200 students throughout the county. For more information about the program, visit chathameducationfoundation.org

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or @b_rappaport.

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