Closing the Book Ownership Gap for ESL Families

By Daniele Berman, Book Harvest Operations Manager
This article originally appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on February 8, 2016.

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Every week, more than 100 families come through the doors at Durham Public Schools’ ESL Resource Center. This is one of the very first stops for families newly arriving in Durham, eager to enroll their children in school in their new community. They may have come from Honduras or as refugees from Northern Africa, or they may be moving from a nearby town. They may speak Spanish, Cantonese, Arabic, Otomi, Chatino, or Korean. However their journey brings them to the office, they are all instantly welcomed.

McCurley helps a DPS student choose a book.

McCurley helps a DPS student choose a book.

The ESL team is able to help families whose first language is not English navigate a system that can at times be overwhelming and confusing. And thanks to that team, every child who visits is able to select and keep as many books as they would like from the Book Harvest Community Book Bank shelf that greets them when they first walk in the door.

Since September 2013, Mercedes McCurley, a Community/Parent Liaison at the ESL Resource Center, has managed the Center’s partnership with Book Harvest, a local nonprofit that stocks free bookshelves with the goal of enabling all our community’s children to grow up in homes with plenty of books. The partnership began when McCurley approached Book Harvest’s founder, Ginger Young, to discuss the need for books in the communities she serves. It has been a great partnership ever since.

Since the partnership kicked off, children visiting the Center have selected and taken home 13,136 books — everything from Goodnight Moon in Spanish to early reader LEGO adventures to Diary of a Wimpy Kid. In addition, Book Harvest is often able to provide dictionaries to further support the families’ language learning.

All of the books that children harvest through Book Harvest’s Community Book Bank—averaging 1,500 per week at more than 30 Triangle locations —are donated directly from the community. From a child contributing books from his shelves at home to a scout troop running a book drive, the “community” in Book Harvest’s Community Book Bank is as much about the people donating books as it is about partners like McCurley sharing those books.

“The families we serve have very limited resources,” says McCurley, “so buying books is not an option for them. The Book Harvest bookshelf helps close the book ownership gap.”

“Our service is very comprehensive,” McCurley continues. “Once the families visit the ESL Resource Center they know that they can come back with any questions related to educational resources.” She cites the example of a seventh grader who is gifted in math. His family lacks funds to send him to a summer camp where he can receive math enrichment; the ESL team is working to help him apply for scholarships to make camp possible this summer.

In addition to the Book Harvest books, McCurley collects a host of resources to offer families who visit – among them, more new books from nonprofit social enterprise First Book, memberships to the Museum of Life and Science, coloring books from Crayons 2 Calculators, and Blast Off to Kindergarten kits from Durham’s Partnership for Children.

DPSESLBook Harvest’s shelf at the ESL Resource Center, located at 2107 Hillandale Road, is one of its busiest, thanks to McCurley and co-workers Monica Belford and Susana Diaz. Before a parent event, for example, they will make sure the shelf is brimming with exciting options, and they will send a phone message to families letting them know the books on the shelf are free for the taking, to help their children build home libraries.

“The best part of the Community Book Bank bookshelf is the daily experience of seeing children from one year old to seventeen years old walking away with their hands full of books and a smile on their faces,” says McCurley.