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Innovative library outreach program marks 15th anniversary

 Kim Beecy

Kim Beecy

Every Monday afternoon after school, school librarian Kim Beecy heads over to Kangaroo’s Kids Kare in Lewiston. The kids eagerly await her arrival with noses pressed against the glass door. After vying for her attention, each child gets a turn reading a book with her one-on-one. They don’t let her leave for at least an hour.

On Friday mornings, Marilyn Simonds sits down with a group of excited toddlers at Tiger Paws Daycare in Auburn. She sings with them and reads books to them. After she goes, they eagerly dig into the bag of books she leaves behind.

“I’ve never been so well received as I am by my bevy of listeners,” says Simonds. “Everyone has something to share or to show me. It doesn’t take long to bond with the group.”

Beecy and Simonds are just two of the scores of volunteers who, over the past fifteen years, have made thousands of weekly visits to read to children at area in-home childcare centers through the innovative BookReach program administered by the Auburn and Lewiston public libraries. And the children aren’t the only ones who benefit.

“There’s nothing better than seeing their little faces light up when you show up with a new bag of books, or the wonderful feeling you get when you win over the shy ones,” says Beecy. “Those kids are a weekly reminder to me of why literacy at this age is so important. You can open up worlds to them that will leave an impression forever.”

“When the choice of a book grabs the interest of a child, you can see by their facial expression and body language that the story is being lived,” says Simonds. “Hopefully, this is the first step to a lifetime of loving books. When I leave, I know it’s been time well spent. I love it.”

BookReach began in 1997 when a group of community members, under the direction of the Lewiston Aspirations Partnership, sat down to discuss their concern over early literacy skills in the community. That group included educators, local business leaders, representatives of Androscoggin Head Start and L/A Arts, and the directors of the Lewiston and Auburn public libraries. They discussed several options for programs that would provide early literacy services.

What they eventually settled on was a program proposed by children’s librarians Pam Osborn of Auburn Public Library and Susan Pease of Lewiston Public Library. The librarians had noticed a drop in library visits and story time attendance by groups from local childcare centers. Since the centers were unable to bring all their kids to the library every week, the new service, called BookReach, would bring the library to them in the form of volunteer readers armed with bags of the best new books for young children.

The libraries supported the program with staff, space, and funding and the books were purchased with financial help from L/A Arts, Maine Music Society, and The Public Theater.

A mini pilot program began in the fall of that year, with six volunteers assigned to make weekly visits to six childcare centers. The trial was a success, and the group decided to seek grant funding, which was provided by L.L. Bean in 1998 to support an initial two years of operation. After the grant ran out, the libraries decided to take over funding the program themselves, with the costs split between the Lewiston and Auburn public libraries.

“In 1998, Susan [Pease] and I knew we wanted to put our best efforts toward such a program,” says now retired APL Children’s Librarian Pam Osborn. “We know it’s one of the very best things we can do for our young children – to read to them and involve them with words and illustrations, ideas, and imaginative stories.

“For fifteen years, BookReach has provided an important and enjoyable relationship with books for the children listening and interacting and for the adults reading to, singing and chatting with the kids.” Osborn continued. “It’s an all-around growth experience for everyone involved. Many thanks to the Auburn and Lewiston public libraries for collaborating so long and successfully to support BookReach for our youngest and most deserving citizens.”

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