In 2009, Temple University undergrad Lauren Popp witnessed firsthand how limited access to books can affect a child's ability to read. Popp was tutoring an 8-year-old student at Tree House Books, a nonprofit dedicated to improving childhood literacy. The student’s assignment was to write and rewrite a set of words, which he was able to do. But when Michael Reid, Tree House’s executive director, asked him to pronounce the letters of each word and the words themselves, the boy started crying. He could only say the words because he had memorized them.
The “summer slide” from academics affects many students, when it becomes more difficult to ensure they maintain progress with their reading. But it’s especially problematic in North Central Philadelphia, where students have consistently struggled with literacy and academics in the past. For example, in 2013, the Duckrey Tanner School, which many of the Tree House kids attend, ranked 1,445 out of 1,469 Pennsylvania elementary schools in reading and math PSSA scores.
Today, as the program director of Tree House Books, Popp coordinates activities that aim to instill an appreciation for reading in children. After school, students can meet at Tree House for reading circles, to practice creative writing or to listen to someone talk about how reading affected their life. But when summer hits, the program ends, so in 2013, Tree House Books created Words on Wheels to confront this academic obstacle. During July, more than a dozen volunteers on bikes dropped off books to families who had signed up for the program, spearheading the goal of 1,000 books by bike.
Children received one book per week throughout the month, in which they found a personalized note from a volunteer and a label with their name written on it. “Instead of just being a simple delivery, we’re trying to establish a relationship with these kids,” says Maddie Luebbert, a Temple student who is one of the lead cyclists. “The notes and labels imply ownership and autonomy. That feeling of having your own books on your own shelf can allow a child to love reading.”
Words on Wheels has spurred a positive reception from the community it serves. Marie Brooker, a daycare teacher who has lived in the neighborhood all her life, is one of its biggest supporters. For the last two years of the program, Brooker went door to door to collect paper sign-up forms. Recently, she single-handedly registered 98 children. She’s seen the effects of Words on Wheels through her daycare students.
“As soon as I mention it, the kids are excited and ready to get more books,” she says. “They really remember the program and want to sign up.”
Words on Wheels is also convenient for parents who don’t always have the time or resources to take their children to libraries. It’s been a great help to Carmen Sharpe, a single mother of four. “My 8-year-old loves the books,” Sharpe says. “She’s been able to catch up on her reading during the summer and is now two levels up from where she’s supposed to be as a fourth-grader.”
Tree House Books and its community are not accomplishing their goals alone. The deliveries were facilitated by partnering organizations Gearing Up, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and Wash Cycle Laundry. Words on Wheels has brought all these organizations together, each contributing their own approach towards sustainability.
“Working here for five years has taught me that there is nothing more sustainable than making sure books are getting into the hands of children,” Popp says. “To sustain the city we need to grow readers.”
To donate books for Words on Wheels, visit treehousebooks.org/donate.