by Cori Hilsgen
When Derek Larson heard from his friends in the Houston, Texas area how many children were displaced and how schools were impacted after Hurricane Harvey went through the area, he knew he wanted to do something to help.
Larson is a history and environmental-studies professor at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. He thought it would be a good idea to share some books he and his family had collected at home with children and schools that had lost books.
His Houston teacher friend, Carola Lowe, connected him with Lupe Palacios at Frazier Elementary in Houston. The school is open, but many families were impacted by the flooding and children lost books at home.
Palacios will organize the distribution of the books from St. Joseph to the children in Texas who need reading materials at home. A few of the books that have been collected for older readers will go to a local high school that was so badly damaged it won’t reopen until next year.
Since Larson has a daughter, Piper, who attends seventh grade at Kennedy Community School, he reached out to Kennedy school principal, Laurie Putnam, because he thought students might have unwanted books at home.
Putnam put him in touch with Melissa Bach, seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher, and Amy O’Hare, school counselor, who are co-facilitators of the school’s student council.
The student council organized a book drive for the Houston school, hoping to supply the school and its families with new and/or gently used books.
The book drive ran from Oct. 3-13, but additional books also arrived when the drive ended.
Organizers received far more books than the original goal of 500 books.
Bach said family members of students, former teachers, grandparents and more donated their entire collections.
Kennedy seventh/eighth-grade language arts teacher Kelli Maurer offered the seventh-graders in her advisory a trade. If they brought in books, she would bring them breakfast one day.
“We set a goal, which they easily surpassed and I ended up setting another goal, which they also met,” Maurer said. “In total, they ended up bringing in 229 books.”
Kennedy parent and paraprofessional Pam Funk elicited some help from her mom, Alice Klasen of Melrose, who has a great love of books and a large supply of them.
Funk said her mother dropped off 17 boxes of books ready to go to those in need.
Funk also contacted “Friends of the St. Cloud Library” about a sale they were hosting, inquiring what they do with leftover books after the sale. After she told them about the Kennedy book drive, she said they were very willing to donate to a great cause. This group donated about 18 boxes filled with books.
“I enjoy having my kids participate in collecting and delivering the donated items so they can see the importance of being involved in the community and give back whenever they can,” Funk said.
“I am so proud of our student council for their leadership efforts in our school,” Kennedy principal Putnam said. “Not only are they learning how to organize and promote an event such as this, they are modeling kindness and generosity for our entire learning community.”
St. John’s Prep School also became involved with the project through Larson’s other daughter, Hazel, who is a junior at the school. She organized a donation campaign to accept donations for the shipping costs, which were more than $500.
Larson’s family donated the other funds needed to transport the books.
Other students from St. John’s Prep also helped sort and pack books before they were shipped.
Most of the books were collected at Kennedy. Some were also collected at St. John’s Prep. Larson picked up the books from Kennedy, and he and Piper removed damaged and other books that couldn’t be shipped. They then took the books to St. John’s University where they were sorted and packed.
About 10 volunteers from St. John’s Prep and the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University environmental-studies department packed 39 boxes of more than 3,250 books Oct. 24. The St. Cloud Library provided packing boxes for the books.
Larson then took the 39 boxes of books to North Central Truck Accessories in St. Joseph and they provided the pallet, wrapping and expertise for shipping the books. The 39 boxes totaled more than 1,300 pounds.
The books, ranging from pre-school to young-adult titles, were shipped to Frazier Elementary. The school plans to hold a book fair to distribute them to families.
Larson said he has studied the impacts of other disasters like Hurricane Katrina that hit the United States Gulf Coast in 2005 and left many people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama devastated and displaced from their homes.
He said while organizations are prepared to help with food, shelter and other immediate needs, there isn’t a system to get books into the hands of young readers. Especially children who have been displaced or whose schools have been impacted.
Besides being an important educational activity, Larson said reading is a valuable respite from the stress of recovery.
“Since we’ve been fortunate here in Minnesota to escape the recent spate of disasters, and many families have piles of kids’ books their children have outgrown, it seemed like a good way we could help out,” Larson said.
Author: Cori Hilsgen
Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people’s stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.