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Bellefonte READS spreads gift of reading to entire community

PHOTO PROVIDED The sign outside the 2021 Bellefonte READS event is pictured. This year’s event was a drive-through due to the pandemic.

BELLEFONTE — Has there ever been a better time to get lost in a good book? The events of the past year have pushed us all to our limits and left us with few means of escape. Normal socialization still isn’t possible, and all the Zooming and streaming and texting and FaceTiming has made our screens seem less like the mindless retreats they once were and more like another exhausting obligation.

It’s enough to make diving into a good old-fashioned story printed on actual paper (or at least simulated on your e-reader) seem downright exotic. Reading remains the last, best vestige for our weary imaginations and frazzled attention spans. It’s also the one shared escape no world-shaking crisis can disrupt.

March is National Reading Month, which is always a great excuse to reinforce the joys and virtues of reading while encouraging our students, friends, families, and communities to read more. This year, that message might resonate like never before.

BINDS A COMMUNITY

Back in January 2020 (aka “the before times”), we visited Bellefonte Area High School to check out “One Book, One Bellefonte,” a community book giveaway-slash-literary festival that has become a beloved fixture for this small town north of State College. It is one of two marquee events hosted each school year by Bellefonte READS, a literacy outreach committee cofounded in 2014 by Bellefonte Area School District secondary literacy coaches Jacqueline Wynkoop and Nicole Kohlhepp.

“The whole mission of Bellefonte READS is to foster love of literacy in the community, and also put quality books in the hands of children and families,” said Wynkoop. “We felt it was our duty to go out and to start something that could really rally the community and just make reading cool again.”

“As literacy coaches, our focus is really trying to improve literacy instruction and building literacy in the classroom,” added Kohlhepp. “But I think we realized that also needs to be connected to what happens at home as well. If you look at key research, it shows that success or achievement is really built on book ownership, and also time spent independently reading. So by having these events we feel like we build that strong connection from the classroom to the community.”

Last January’s event drew nearly 700 guests of all ages and featured multiple breakout rooms with literary-themed activities, craft tables, and a book giveaway where Bellefonte READS distributed 1,000 copies of a middle grade level book, as well as a picture book for younger readers. The committee donated the leftover books to the local library and various district classrooms.

The second event Bellefonte READS hosts each year is a Community Literacy Night in the spring. Last year, the committee managed to squeak that in just a week before COVID school closures began. The event featured a variety of literacy stations, guest speakers, a selfie station where guests could take a photo in a photo booth and turn it into a keepsake bookmark, author signings, even a free community dinner.

“It actually is a full year-round process,” Kohlhepp said of these events. “Each month we have a certain task. We need to make sure that we either are raising the funds that we need for the books that we want or even working on the planning stages. We’ll have a wrap-up meeting at the very end of the school year. But then in September we’re already starting to talk about what ideas we have for next year’s books and events.”

This year, with in-person events still uncertain, Wynkoop and Kohlhepp had to think outside the box.

PANDEMIC-PROOF PLAN

What they settled on is a drive-up book giveaway at the middle school. Instead of an open event, this year’s guests were asked to pre-register so committee members would be able to greet them at their cars – masked up of course – with pre-stuffed bags full of free books, snacks, bookmarks, supplemental activities, and discussion questions.

This year’s response was by far their most robust yet, with 403 families consisting of 1,541 people (over 20 percent of Bellefonte’s total population) reserving 1,302 books. This year for the first time the committee also asked the community to vote on a theme. After hundreds of votes were cast, the winning theme was “Find Your Brave.”

“It’s all about finding the superhero within you,” Wynkoop said. “We’re looking for high school students to volunteer their time to dress up as superheroes. And then our idea is that they would hold a cardboard sign that looks like a book, and on the sign will be some inspirational phrases like ‘find the superhero within you’ or ‘find your brave,’ just to add that extra element and have them outside waving to people and getting especially the little kids excited about the superhero theme.”

The committee was also able to coordinate virtual visits with all the books’ authors, with one notable exception.

“Kamala Harris hasn’t gotten back to us yet,” Wynkoop said with a laugh, referring to Harris’ “Superheroes Are Everywhere” book, geared to a K-4 audience. “I think she might be just a tad busy these days.”

One benefit of holding this event virtually, though, is that it’s saved a lot of money they would have spent bringing in authors for physical appearances. That’s more money that can go toward books.

ALL ARE WELCOME

It’s a testament to Bellefonte READS’ success that it can get so much community involvement for these events, even during a pandemic. In normal times, help will come in from all over the community, like the local pizza shop that puts flyers on their pizza boxes to advertise Bellefonte READS events. From the local children’s librarian, to the Bellefonte Women’s Club, to a variety of other Bellefonte residents and businesses too numerous to name – all are excited to contribute to this unique and wholesome program that spreads the gift of reading to an entire community.

“We also run Jared Box (Project) book drives to try to put books in the hands of kids who may be in the hospital or in the emergency room,” said Wynkoop. “At different events throughout the year like children’s fairs, we go and we give away books. So our whole goal is just to put books in our community’s hands.”

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Bellefonte Area School District

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318 N. Allegheny Street

Bellefonte, PA 16823

814-355-4816

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