rebecca
16 Feb
  • By Aizhana Danabekova

Providing books to low-income communities

Rebecca Constantino,

Founder & Executive Director of Access Books

Many children in low-income communities do not own a single book. Apart from, they have no idea that hardback books exist – having only had access to copies of books. In one case, a group of 12-year-old girls takes regular 3-hour bus rides to the closest mall in order to read copies of their favorite books in the bookstore. Having done a graduate research on the roles of school and community libraries, Rebecca Constantino witnessed that a lot of brand new books were getting rid of in affluent schools of Los Angeles. So, she decided to keep the rejected books and donate them to a public school in Compton, an underprivileged district of the city where schools were closing their libraries.

In 1999, Rebecca founded ACCESS BOOKS that provides books to inner-city schools where at least 90 percent of students live at or below the poverty line. Most students at the schools are children of color and children of immigrants. Since 1999, the nonprofit organization has donated more than a million books, and every year, approximately 18,000 pre-kindergarten through middle school-aged children participate in their program.

As Rebecca says, “Reading is the foundation for problem solving (in the school) and success in many aspect of life.  More importantly, reading can provide students with an opportunity to see the world beyond where they live”.

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Can you tell us a little about yourself (your education and career)?

Thanks to my mom, who surrounded me with books at home and regular trips to the library, I have always been a reader.  I did not grow up with a lot of money, but I never felt poor since books took me places every day.  My love of books and language led me to teach English as a second language in the U.S. and abroad.  I was always interested in literacy and access to literacy among communities.  Accordingly, I have always been interested in equity and I firmly believe that literacy and access to literacy in a civil right.  My two passions intersected when I was conducting research after my Ph.D. studies.  My area of study was Language, Literacy and Learning.

Why did you decide to establish ACCESS BOOKs? Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started?

I conducted a study in which I compared at access to books in home, classroom and school communities for both affluent and children living in poverty. I found that students in wealthy areas had access to more books in their home than poor children had in their home, classroom, school and public library combined. I also found that in some affluent schools, good quality books were discarded on a regular basis, making room for new ones. Thus, Access Books was born.  I started by taking books from one school to another but new, from research that the school library is the most impactful source of books for children living in poverty.  I created a nonprofit to specifically serve school libraries.

Our mission is twofold: to provide high-interest reading material to underserved children, and to provide a warm and welcoming school or community library

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What’s the biggest leadership challenge you have faced in doing what you do? How did you overcome it and what did you learn from it?

I found that leadership works best when one listens.  There are many people who know more about library collections, libraries and the like. Also, there are many who know more about running a nonprofit than I do.  I learned early on to let those who know more take the lead on issues.  For me, leadership is working collaboratively as a team.  The biggest challenge is balancing time to spend on nonprofit work and other responsibilities.

Since 1999, Access Books has donated more than a million books, and every year, approximately 18,000 pre-kindergarten through middle school-aged children participate in your program.

Could you tell us a little bit about where ACCESS BOOKs stands today? Are you thinking of expanding the project further into other cities or maybe globally?

We have a chapter in Northern California and several other cities want to start one.  We would love for other chapters to develop wherever the need is.  We want ALL children to have access to books.

Do you have any criteria to select books for your library?

The school must serve underserved children who do not have access to books in the home or community.  To receive our grant, school administrators apply to Access Books by filling out a questionnaire that addresses the condition of the school’s library and population demographics. Most applicants have at least 90 percent of the student body living at or below the poverty line. Typically, the schools we serve have less than 10 books per student (the school library association recommends 28).

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Why is it important that children read? What impact can books have on children?

Reading is the foundation for problem solving (in the school) and success in many aspect of life.  More importantly, reading can provide students with an opportunity to see the world beyond where they live.  Also, books are critical in showing children that people like them read, write and are part of important stories.  It can be life changing for a child to open a book and see images that reflect their culture and heritage.  It is also impactful that children see and read books from their culture.  They need to know that their voice is one of literacy.  It is also important to provide children with new books. This tells them that books and their literacy are important.  It is also important that children have access to a beautiful library. It sends the message that reading and specifically, their literacy is important.   We have a program in which volunteer artists refurbish the library and the whole community paints it.

What’s your favorite book from childhood? Why?

The marvelous adventure of Edward Tulane- no matter the age, anyone reading this book will be pulled in.  It is great to read aloud or alone.  The reader goes from crying to laughing throughout the story.  This is a book that is difficult to put down.  At each reading you tell yourself, “one more chapter,” and before you realize it, it’s the end.

What book do you recommend our Ripplezoo’s readers to read?

I think you should read whatever you get your hands on.  The most important thing is, if you don’t like something you are reading, you are not obligated to finish it.  Reading is not something you do for others, for points or for recognition.  Reading is something you do for yourself.  Ideally, you will share what you have enjoyed.

To find out more about ACCESS BOOKS, please click on the following link http://www.accessbooks.net/

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