A love of reading and the desire to help the community prompted Sydney Matesevac to join a school project that combined both.
The Northbrook Middle School seventh-grader, along with classmate Emma Beck, was among hundreds of volunteers who participated in the Gwinnett Reading Exchange & Art Transforms Little Minds (G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds), a program of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services.
Back in October, students in the construction trades program at Maxwell High School of Technology built the components for 200 miniature libraries that will be placed throughout the county — mainly in lower-income areas.
Art classes, community groups, professional artists and civic-minded folks throughout the county signed up to decorate the libraries.
The results were on display Saturday at the Hudgens Center for Art & Learning.
Related story: Weekend exhibit of ‘little libraries’ at Hudgens Center
As Sydney showed off her design, she explained how she and her partner were pretty much in sync.
“We both had been thinking about an underwater theme and we came up with idea of ‘getting hooked on books’ together,” she said.
The Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services plans to have the libraries in place by the end of March.
“We haven’t identified all of the sites yet,” said Ellen Gerstein, Gwinnett Coalition’s executive drector. “But there are 42 Title I schools in Gwinnett County, and we want to make sure most of the libraries are in proximity to those schools.”
Title I schools have a high percentage of low-income students. The organization is looking at housing developments and social services agencies first to make sure those children are reached.
Kim Holland, director of Early Learning and School Readiness for Gwinnett County Public Schools, is a volunteer with the project. Because the county is focusing heavily on making sure little ones are prepared for kindergarten, the libraries will be stocked with books aimed at children up to 8 years old.
“Exposure to books and reading at a young age is so critical to early learning that we want to give those youngsters as much access to books as possible,” she said.
Mark Daniel, owner of Books by the Pound in Lawrenceville, said, “We’re committed to fighting illiteracy, and this project is in line with our goals.”
The book exchange has signed on to donate 1,000 books every month.
Little libraries’ patrons are supposed to take a book and leave a book. However, organizers don’t want that to be a deterrent for visitors who may not have anything to leave, so donations will remain an ongoing part of the project.
Students at Paul Duke STEM High School will track data so organizers can make sure the libraries are stocked and are in places where they’ll be used.
“If there’s a lot of activity, we’ll alert a steward to check to make sure there are still books available,” Gerstein said. “If there’s little or no activity, we may consider moving the library to another spot.”
Ashmin Kaur, an eighth-grader at Northbrook Middle School, and Brianna Cash, a 10th-grader at South Gwinnett High School, said they plan to visit their libraries and keep the momentum for reading alive.
“It’s an amazing feeling when you can make others happy through art,” said Ashmin.
Stephanie Birmingham, an art teacher at Five Forks Middle School, agreed.
“I had three groups work on a library each,” she said. “They were so excited to be a part of this. They worked on it in class, before school, after school — every chance they got.”
She said it took about six weeks to complete, but everyone was thrilled with the results.
“This is art, education and teamwork at its best,” she said. “I encourage anyone who has the chance to do something like this to get involved. It’s a win for everyone.”
Learn more about the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services’s Gwinnett Reading Exchange & Art Transforms Little Minds (G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds) program: www.gwinnettcoalition.org/great-little-minds
By the numbers
• Birth to 8 years old — target ages for books
• 52% — of children in Gwinnett County Public Schools who enter kindergarten without necessary skills for lifetime learning
• 61% — of low-income children are in homes without books
Children who don’t read proficiently by third grade are 4 to 6 times more likely to drop out of high school.
Source: Gwinnett Coalition for Health & Human Services
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