Most teachers probably wish they had Renee Romerdahl’s problem: she can’t get her students to stop reading.
Each month, when the big red-and-white box of books arrives from Scholastic, joyous anticipation reigns in Romerdahl’s first-grade classroom at Kïhei Elementary School. “My students are so excited to get their book orders,” Romerdahl says. “They read the books during class and at home . . . they just don’t want to stop! I love to see them developing such a love of reading.”
Thanks to a simple but surprisingly effective program called Book Trust, it’s not just a few lucky kids who can receive glossy new paperbacks from the hallowed box—it’s every kid in class. Book Trust reaches almost 2,400 keiki across Maui County, and that number continues to multiply.
It all began back when Book Trust founder and executive director Adrienne Schatz was in elementary school in Fort Collins, Colorado. “I remember seeing kids in my class who didn’t order books, and thinking, ‘They don’t like books; isn’t that crazy?’”
Years later, an older and wiser Adrienne realized the problem wasn’t necessarily a dislike of books, but a lack of money. “A lot of families couldn’t have that as a priority,” she says sadly. In fact, in neighborhoods with poorly performing schools, 61 percent of families own no books at all.
In the spring of 2000, Adrienne, then 22, her brother, David, and her parents, Jill and Doug Schatz, decided to start a small family foundation. Adrienne knew immediately where she wanted her discretionary funding to go—“to children whose parents couldn’t afford books.”
Thus, the first chapter of Book Trust opened in first grade classrooms at Adrienne’s former elementary school. The program was based on a simple premise: when Scholastic book orders were placed each month, students who qualified for free or reduced-fee lunches could order $7 worth of free books—about two or three titles.
The response from students, teachers and parents was astounding. “We thought maybe we’d get an academic impact,” Adrienne says. “But it entirely changed the attitude of children toward reading.”
For some children, it was the first time they could choose their own books—a heady lesson in empowerment. “The kids had a chance to figure out if their books would be about sharks or snakes or Babysitters Club or Captain Underpants [a big favorite on the elementary school circuit]!” Adrienne says. “There were no limitations on the books they could choose.”
The red-and-white boxes kept coming, and the program expanded its reach to schools around Colorado. In fall 2005, Book Trust arrived on Maui, where the Schatz family has longtime ties and a home in the Makena area. “It’s always been an incredible place to us, so it made sense to want to involve the Maui community,” Adrienne says.
The first to come onboard were Kïhei and Makawao Elementary Schools. With a quickly growing group of donors and volunteers, it wasn’t long until the program had spread into nineteen public elementary schools in Maui County.
Once their books arrive, students have sole possession. They can hold the book in their hands, write their name inside the cover and take it home. They can set up book clubs or swaps with friends, share their book with siblings, or just put it on the shelf to enjoy at their leisure. Ownership carries intangible rewards like a sense of pride and accomplishment.
As one child put it: “I liked picking out my own books. Now, I have a big pile of books in my house. I read my books with my little sister. Sometimes I let her read books by herself.”
Another said: “I know summer is a time for fun outside, but I’m not going to goof off. I’m reading. Reading is my favorite.” And another: “I have fun reading them, and I’m getting smarter at the same time!”
Donor and volunteer Susan Conway Kean’s involvement with Book Trust stems from memories of her own children’s excitement when book orders would arrive at Kula Elementary. “To offer this enjoyment to all the children who may not otherwise afford it not only warms my heart but makes me feel like I’m doing a huge service to Maui County,” she says.
Cheryl Yoshida, a first-grade teacher at Kamali‘i Elementary, says her Book Trust students have not only gained a greater appreciation for reading, but have “improved their attitude” toward other subjects like math and science. They also treat their personal and classroom books with more care, she says.
In addition to Hawai‘i and Colorado, Book Trust now offers free books to students in California, Texas, New York and New Hampshire, with plans to expand into Washington and Florida.
Maui residents can join the Book Trust’s efforts by sponsoring a child, who will receive books every month for a year. For $70—the cost of a latte and muffin a month—individuals, families or businesses can contribute to the growth of Maui keiki.
“These kids may have never had the opportunity to discover why reading is fun,” Adrienne says. “An interest in books can start in the classroom, and it spreads from there into the home.”
And how many parents would really complain if they couldn’t get their child to stop reading—even if it was Captain Underpants?
To donate, volunteer, or for more information on this 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, visit booktrust.org.