A Northgate librarian, working with a colleague at a nearby school, has found a way to significantly boost the number of books available for kids who live in homeless shelters or tent cities.
At Seattle’s Northgate Elementary, about one in every four students is homeless. For one girl, that means going to the nearby Mary’s Place Family Center for a few hours after school, and then to a tent city. She has few toys, and though she could check out books from her school library, the library sometimes isn’t open when she would like one. With little to do at the homeless encampment, she sometimes just wanders around, alone.
The girl told her story to Northgate Elementary librarian Kate Eads, who decided she needed to figure out a way to ensure students experiencing homelessness could get books when they wanted one. She started by contacting Mary’s Place, which provides services for homeless women, children and families. Did Mary’s Place, she asked, have any books for kids to read or take with them? The answer was yes, but staff members said most were older books that people brought in from their basements to donate. While they were grateful for those books, they volumes often weren’t very engaging, or at the right level for most of their kids.
So Eads decided to boost the organization’s collection.
“It didn’t feel right,” Eads said. “As a librarian and a teacher, if I could go into every one of my students’ homes and make sure they have adequate books, I would be set. I can’t do that, but I can have an impact at Mary’s Place.”
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Eads partnered with North Beach Elementary in a call for donations, and together the two schools have received more than 1,000 new or gently used books. Now Mary’s Place has shelves of colorful books, organized by reading level, that students can borrow overnight.
“It’s been much easier for them to find something at their reading level,” said James Flynn, Mary’s Place’s youth services director.
The number of Northgate Elementary students experiencing homelessness fluctuates, but it ebbs and flows around 25 percent, Eads said.
“People are in disbelief about the percentage, and that’s just Northgate,” Eads said. “There’s a huge amount of homeless students who are in Seattle schools.”
Northgate is the closest elementary school to the Mary’s Place Family Center. The center provides housing for some families, but not all students stay there overnight.
For the book drive, Eads partnered with Kristine McLane, the librarian at North Beach Elementary. Though the two schools are just four miles from each other, the student populations differ greatly. About 75 percent of Northgate’s students qualify for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program, compared with less than 10 percent at North Beach. Both librarians have been involved in lobbying for increased and equal funding to Seattle’s school libraries.
Hundreds of the 1,000 books came from a drive held by North Beach fifth-graders. Eads also created a wish list on Amazon.com and reached out to parent groups for donations.
The librarians also plan on sending books to other Mary’s Place locations, tent cities and other shelters, and directly into the hands of students at Northgate and other schools.
When the librarians and student volunteers arrived at the North Seattle Mary’s Place location with boxes of books, a second-grader who normally has a tough exterior at school started crying.
“At school, she’s very hard,” Eads said. “But when she saw the books, she cried and hugged us and said ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’ That was really powerful.”