Reminder Assistant Editor
WILBRAHAM "It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading." That's what author Katherine Paterson, who penned the children's classic "The Bridge to Terabithia" and 14 other children's novels has said. The statement is also Joanne Christopher's motto.
Christopher is a Wilbraham resident, a mother of an eight-year-old and an avid reader. She is also a very active participant of "Reach for the Stars," a pledge-based reading incentive program hosted by Usborne Books.
"It all started in the year 2000 when my daughter, Kelly, was a few weeks old. I was invited to an Usborne Books home gathering. I fell in love with the books," she said. "They are bright and beautiful, educational and fun. Perfect for a new mom and her baby! So right then and there I booked a gathering of my own. I decided to become a consultant and have been dabbling in the world of Usborne Books ever since."
Since that simple beginning, Christopher has gone on to host many home gatherings as ways to share the books, brought book fairs to schools, libraries and other organizations and began the "Reach for the Stars" program at SABIS International Charter School in Springfield.
"Reach for the Stars" is a unique pledge program that brings 100 percent of the pledges earned back to the students in the form of Usborne Books.
"The children read for two weeks (which they should be doing anyhow, so it's not an added activity in their already busy schedules). Homework counts too! They log their minutes daily. They get pledges from family and friends," Christopher explained. As the students gather pledges, they can make out wish lists of which books they would like to earn as a result of their work.
This year was the second year that SABIS International Charter School participated in the "Reach for the Stars" program. Kim Tynan, a first grade teacher and reading coordinator for the school, said she first met Christopher when she was selling books at a SABIS craft fair.
"I had some [Usborne Books] in my class an used them for lessons," Tynan said. "I knew the quality to be durable and the content was exceptional for my students. A parent and friend, who knew of Joanne's work with Usborne, suggested we meet and discuss a book fair/fundraiser."
SABIS first tried the "Reach for the Stars" program in May 2007 with 100 first graders. Thirty-seven percent of the students participated that first year, raising over $1,000 in books for themselves and their classes.
"Parents told me that the program motivated their children to keep reading, even as the school year was winding down," Tynan said, "which is of course, what we had intended."
This year, the program expanded to include kindergartners through third graders, who collected sponsors totaling over $5,500. Half of the funds were used to get books for themselves, while the other half put new books in classrooms for reading, according to Tynan.
"Several times during the program's duration, children in other grades stopped me in the hall to tell me what they were reading or how many hours they had left to reach their goal," Tynan said. "I was thrilled to hear their comments; and I was happier still the day I saw them leaving school with their new books."
She said the greatest reward from this experience came from a child in her own class who has been struggling with reading. Tynan explained "Reach for the Stars" to the boy's mother and she saw the program as a great way to show her son how many people supported his efforts to read. At the end of the program, he was rewarded with the most books from Christopher.
"I believe the program will continue at SABIS and expand to include other grades as well," Tynan said. "In the future, I also hope to see our students work with Usborne and read to earn books for children's charities."
Christopher explained that "Reach for the Stars" is a very flexible program. Two Wilbraham Girl Scout troops went through the program and gave half the books they earned to a facility in Holyoke.
She and her daughter, Kelly, will soon be starting their fifth year of their own "Reach for the Stars" program. Together, they give all the books they earn to the Shriner's Hospital. In total, the mother-daughter duo have donated $2,000 worth of books so far.
"The program is flexible, simple, rewarding and generous," Christopher stated. "It is a great way to give something back. Kelly is always excited to help."
"'Reach for the Stars' is special because it encourages children to do the one thing which makes life-long learning possible," Tynan noted. It allows children to earn books for their classmates and themselves, gives them a rare opportunity to contribute to other people in a meaningful way and most importantly, invites people to contribute to the motivation of a child, she added.
The good work of Christopher and Usborne Books doesn't end with "Reach for the Stars," however. She said businesses can help their communities through another program called "Literacy for a Lifetime." Books donated to local schools, libraries, organizations, facilities, hospitals, shelters, etc., through the program are matched by 50 percent by Christopher.
"As a mother, I love this company," Christopher said. "It allows me to choose where, when and how I work. I can work around Kelly and have even had the pleasure of her as my sidekick at book fairs here and there and craft fairs, where she hands out bookmarks and stickers to the kids and parents."
Kelly has read to the preschoolers at Green Valley Preschool in Hampden while assisting her mother.
"Being 'the Book Lady' is the best 'job' I can imagine and I plan on helping as many people earn these books as a possibly can," Christopher said. "I want to encourage our children to love reading."
Christopher's online bookstore is available at www.ubah.com/L1136. She can also be reached by calling 596-2636.