The small band of military veterans readily accepted their assignment: to quickly unload 2,400 books Wednesday and deliver them to students at St. Raymond of Penafort Catholic School to encourage literacy.
They were recruited by another veteran, Larry Abrams, a South Jersey educator who has been giving away thousands of books to students who may have few or no books at home. He wants to eventually donate one million to schools and teachers around the region through his nonprofit, BookSmiles.
Abrams got help from three friends from Action Tank, a young veterans’ group in Philadelphia that partners with other organizations to perform community service.
The team unloaded several dozen boxes of books from a truck in the school’s parking lot onto hand trucks. Because the century-old school in the city’s Mount Airy section doesn’t have an elevator, they carried the boxes up a flight of stairs into the building.
Each classroom received two boxes of books. And each of the 230 students in the K-8 school would be encouraged to take at least one book home, Abrams said.
As the entourage went door-to-door with their deliveries, they were warmly greeted by teachers and students. The school has an antiquated library with some books more than 50 years old, said Principal Durrell Harris.
”We have great books,” said Abrams, an English teacher at Lindenwold High School, as he dropped the first box in a kindergarten classroom. He was met with a chorus of thank yous.
”God bless you,” a kindergartner called out before Abrams moved to the next classroom. A sign on the door to one classroom read: “Soar with books!”
The delivery coincided with Read Across America week, created by the National Education Association to encourage younger students to get excited about reading. It occurs on the birthday of the late children’s book author Dr. Seuss.
Earlier Wednesday, younger students at St. Raymond were assigned a Dr. Seuss book to read and dressed up as their favorite character, said Lauren Sobieski, an assistant principal. The school had been limited in providing books to students for the past two years because of COVID-19 restrictions, she said.
“It’s just really great to bring the love of reading back into the classrooms,” Sobieski said. “This is awesome.”
Abrams challenged students to spend at least 30 minutes reading outside of school. He told them to select a book to add to their personal library, which he recommended should have at least 100 books.
”I love it. I’m very grateful,” said seventh grade English teacher Dene Jennings. “This will help tremendously.”
The group spent extra time with the older students so they could ask questions about their military service. The veterans shared their stories.
Abrams said he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in order to get a college scholarship. Tim Kluska, 27, of Horsham, followed the footsteps of a respected neighbor and joined the Marines after high school. Matt Balascak, 34, and James Morris, 28, both of Philadelphia, served as officers in the Marines.
”We’re all about service,” said Abrams. “It’s a good thing to serve one’s country.”
“Was it scary going into the military?” asked Sydney Weeks, 13, an eighth-grader.
Kluska, an investment analyst, told the aspiring poet and film director that military service would likely be the “biggest challenge” in anyone’s life. Several students, including London Paul, said they were considering military careers.
”I want to fight for my country and fight for people,” said Paul, 12, a seventh-grader.
In 2017, Abrams turned his passion for books into a giveaway. He distributes the majority of his new and gently used books to teachers in Philadelphia. He promised the students at St. Raymond he’d return for more.
Harris, the first-year principal, said the donations will help the school rebuild its library after outdated books are removed this summer, he said.
”I’m blessed for the opportunity for it to happen,” Harris said. “There are books in there from a long time ago.”
St. Raymond is among 14 schools operated by Independence Mission Schools, a network of Catholic elementary schools in Philadelphia. The network recently launched a $50 million capital campaign to focus partly on math and literacy, said Tony Luna, who heads fundraising.
Formerly run by their parishes, the schools became part the network created in 2012 in an effort to sustain Catholic education in low-income neighborhoods. They are run separately from the much larger Archdiocese of Philadelphia network of schools.