California Kiwanians boost reading with inventive program, become local heroes.
Story and photos by Curtis Billue
On a sunny sidewalk corner, a box of wonder and delight emerges in the heart of a busy neighborhood across from several schools. When you take from this house-shaped box, it refills like magic, and unlike most fairy tales there are no strings attached, no payment to be made. These treasures are free.
A new Kiwanis book box, created by Kiwanians Jean and Doug Chadwick’s foundation The Literacy Club and sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Glendale, was unveiled in front of the Verdugo Hills Council Boy Scouts offices in Glendale, California.
This colorful minibox is one of many that have popped up in several states throughout the U.S., including California and Ohio, thanks to the work of the Chadwicks, the Kiwanis Literacy Club of Southern California, and support of local clubs that fund the book boxes.
The book box is more house than box: lakeblue trim, forest green doors, handles made from stained cross-sections of tree branches, windows cut out in fleur-de-lis shapes, a campfire, and a multicolored shingled roof with metal flashing.
Inside, colorful spines of books “peer” through the windows, waiting to catch the eye of any young passerby. All the child has to do is open the door.
“There are a lot of neighborhood kids, parents who walk in the evening with their kids when I’m working late at night,” says Amy Taylor, district executive of the Verdugo Hills Council Boy Scouts and member of the Kiwanis Club of Glendale.
“It’s just a great opportunity for people who may not go to the library and have time at school to pick out a book, own a book, hold and cherish it,” she says.
“My mother used to take me to the library every week, and for me, that was one of the most memorable memories I have of my childhood,” says Taylor. “So I really believe in this literacy book box and the programs. I’m glad we can have it here at our council.”
Looking around at Glendale’s beautiful homes and vibrant streets, it’s easy to wonder about the need for a book box. But the working poor are there too, in the service industries and manual-labor jobs, straining to make a living from minimum-wage salaries.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Glendale has a median household income of US$58,657, with areas as low as $21,000, and a cost of living nearly 2.5 times the national average. Families live below the poverty line: 15.6% of the population or about 30,000 of 198,000 people.
“Many families out there are struggling,” says Mark Kraus, scout executive and chief executive officer for the Verdugo Hills Council Boy Scouts. “They can’t afford the books and maybe they just don’t have the ability to get the kids to the library. If we can have this for the neighborhood kids, for them to take advantage of it, I think it’s a great thing.”
“I hope every child who walks by this box stops and picks up a book, and it becomes a part of their routine,” says Valerie Brown-Klingelhoefer of the Kiwanis Club of Marina, Monterey, and honorary member of Kiwanis Literacy Club of Southern California.
After the book-box installation, one neighborhood child found a book and asked if she could keep it. When Brown-Klingelhoefer said yes, the child’s mother insisted on paying for it.
“Mom kept going, ‘How much do I owe you, how much do I owe you?’” Brown-Klingelhoefer remembers. “And I said, ‘You owe me nothing. I owe you. I owe you the opportunity to come back tomorrow. And there’s going to be more books.’”
Brown-Klingelhoefer pauses. Her eyes well up. “Books open doors,” she says.
A new life begins
Jean Chadwick, charter president of the Kiwanis Literacy Club of Southern California co-founder and executive director of the club’s foundation, knows the value of getting books into the hands of children.
As a child, she was abandoned and homeless, living in Los Angeles. Reading was a means to an end, a survival skill for basic necessities. Keeping up grades and staying in school meant a free meal, a shower and productive ways to spend time.
At age 15, Chadwick was adopted by a young family, one that promised not to give her back, as so many families had before them. Her adoptive parents gave her a set of books.
“They handed me ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ and told me to go read,” she says. “This was the first time in my life that somebody had handed me books and told me to go read for fun.”
After a hundred pages, her nerves about a new school and family disappeared. She only wanted to know two things: “How do I get a lion as a best friend, and where do you find these wardrobes?”
The power of reading had changed her life. Now Chadwick wants to give books to kids so they can unlock that power and find that same sense of wonder.
A different approach
While a traditional Kiwanis club might focus on many different projects to help the community, a single-emphasis club takes one idea and makes it their priority. Similar to clubs with a strong signature project, a group identity is formed, and the public can see its goals and clarity of purpose.
Beyond literacy, California has LGBTQ (focused on helping LGBTQ children and youth who need support, especially runaways in shelters), Rose Float and Special Games clubs. Each single-emphasis club fills an important role in the community to help kids in need.
Diane Cripe, Kiwanis Literacy Club of Southern California member, and her husband, Gene, love their club. Gene does his part by sorting through stacks of books and labeling them with Kiwanis stickers. Diane says that their energy is focused in helping kids read, in whatever ways they can.
Chadwick acknowledges that a few Kiwanians have challenged the club: “Well, if you’re single-emphasis, are you really a Kiwanian?” Her response: “Absolutely.”
“Let’s be honest,” she says. “If we’re at the core of what a Kiwanian is, it’s being a good human. And caring about the world we are in.”
Jonathan Tiongco, founder and principal at Alliance Marine-Innovation & Technology 6-12 Complex, appreciates the club’s focus on literacy and education. Although there are Kiwanis clubs in his area, he joined the club because it fits his own mission.
“The average sixth-grade student or ninth-grade student enters our school four to six grade levels below in their reading level,” he says. “It’s a population that has been traditionally underserved, and literacy is the key.”
He loves the idea of building the Kiwanis book boxes in the school’s recreation spaces and connecting the kids’ social lives with the love of reading. His Key Clubbers will choose the boxes’ themes and continue keeping them stocked.
There is passion and conviction in Tiongco’s voice. “We really believe that in order to achieve high school, college and life success, literacy is what our kids need.”
Be a hero
What was the next project for the Kiwanis Literacy Club? Participation at the Glendale Open Arts and Music Festival, where members hoped to give away more than a thousand free books with the help of their friends from the Glendale Kiwanis Club.
Parents and their children stopped by the booth to explore the free books. The young at heart slipped on colorful, silky capes and superhero masks and posed against a comic-book skyline. Striking dramatic poses, they held up their books, snapped pictures with their phones and shared a joy of reading.
For kids, the link between literacy and a superpower to protect the universe is just fun play. But there is a real power in reading. Studies have shown that reading boosts self-esteem and happiness. For example, reading is associated with positive emotional and social experiences, as well as educational and career success.
According to the National Commission on Reading, “the single most significant factor influencing a child’s early educational success is an introduction to books and being read to at home prior to beginning school.”
“Reading develops a bond with your children, and it opens up their imagination,” says Cripe. “It gives you an opportunity to play with your child while you’re reading, because you can become that monster, big giant or whatever.
“I think it gives them an understanding that it’s okay to be a child, even though you’re an adult,” she says.
Toni Beck Espinoza, member of the Glendale and Literacy clubs, was an only child for 10 years. She remembers always having books with her.
“I grew up reading, reading, reading,” she says, “and I knew how important that was to kids. This is a great way Kiwanis could be really involved and help the kids that we’re so focused on.”
Like carnival barkers, Doug (Master Builder of the Kiwanis book boxes) and Jean Chadwick mingled with the passing crowd. “Did you get a book?” they called out. “Every child gets a free book!”
Preteen girls walked by the table and twisted up their noses and mouths as if the book event were too young or “uncool” for their taste. But Jean directed them to The Literacy Club’s new Mobile Book Depot, which is a superhero-themed book box on wheels.
Big kids, little kids, kids of all shapes, colors and backgrounds found their book with the help of Jean Chadwick and the Kiwanians. Always focused on the mission, she was adamant that no child leaves her area without a free book.
Chadwick wants books in the hands of children, to empower them to read and, as she emphasizes, “unlock their lives and imagination through literacy.”
Moments later, the young girls emerged from the Mobile Book Depot laughing, delighted at their find. Each clutched a book tightly in her arms, as if to say, “This book is mine.”
Based on their smiles, the girls seemed to have found something they didn’t know they had wanted: a story of adventure and a key to a lifetime of possibilities.
This story originally appeared in the August 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.