Reading program returns to SiCM following pandemic hiatus – The Daily Gazette

SCHENECTADY – When the 50 free children’s books available each week at the Schenectady Community Ministries’ Albany Street food pantry went missing two years ago, young readers had questions.

“We had children coming up to us and asking where the books were,” SiCM Executive Director Rev. Amaury Tañón-Santos said Wednesday.

The free, culturally diverse books, which are purchased new, were made available through the Schenectady Takes Action for Reading Success – or STARS – program, created by the Schenectady County Public Library to encourage reading among city children up to 8-years-old from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Since launching in 2018, the program – funded through grants and private donations – has provided more than 7,800 books to young readers through two distribution points: the SiCM pantry and the Schenectady County Women, Infants, and Children Services along Clinton Street.

Unlike the library, the books made available do not need to be returned.

“It’s all about early literacy, and an important part of literacy is access. It’s all about getting families access, ”said Kaela Wallman, the library’s coordinator of youth services who oversees the STARS program.

But the program was suspended in 2020 at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered the library system for months and required materials to be quarantined or disinfected upon return when the library reopened.

The program resumed last year, but only at the WIC program.

Following months of anticipation, children no longer need to wonder where the books went. The program returned to SiCM on Wednesday with a variety of books featuring various characters written in English and Spanish, marking the 100th book drop since the program launched.

“We’re not simply handing out books to simply encourage literacy,” Tañón-Santos said. “We’re also encouraging kids to see themselves in literature.”

Jo-Anne Rafalik, SiCM’s chief operating officer, said the STARS program is a natural fit for the community hub, which is focused on addressing issues around food insecurity throughout the county and operates a summer meals program that provided 57,000 meals to youth around the county last year.

The summer meals program has been operating on a delivery-only basis the past two years because of the pandemic, and SiCM has been working with other interfaith organizations to secure culturally diverse books written in multiple languages ​​in the absence of the STARS program. The books were distributed in brown bags along with meals.

But the delivery service has ended and SiCM is working to establish meal sites for this summer’s meal program and have hopes of expanding the reading program to help curtail learning loss and provide students with a safe space to learn.

In years past, volunteers overseeing the meal program would take time to read to children or listen to children read to them. Some even curated reading selections as they got to know the children, Rafalik said.

“They really enjoy that one-on-one attention that they get from reading to an adult,” she said. “When you get that one-on-one attention that’s really what they want. It’s really the perfect way to keep their reading skills going. ”

Wallman, meanwhile, said she is hoping to expand the STARS program in the coming years. The program costs about $ 8,500 to operate each location annually. Each books costs an average of $ 3.50 and supplies are replenished weekly, she said.

In addition, each book comes with a reading guide that provides tips for children and parents, which students from Wildwood School help attach to each book.

Wallman noted that funding for the STARS program is not yet sustainable and relies on a number of private grants and donations, which, coupled with the pandemic, had made it difficult to grow the program.

The hope is to establish a committee that will create ideas on how to fund the program moving forward.

“Ultimately, it’s about empowering parents as their child’s first educator,” Wallman said.

For more information on the STARS program or to make a donation visit: schenectadystars.org.

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.

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Categories: News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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