West Orange Scouts bring reading closer to home

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — Five West Orange boys originally from Cub Scout Pack 10 and now part of Boy Scout Troop 2 have given the gift of literacy to residents with the installation of five book-exchange libraries throughout the township.

Harold Ross, Seun Ogun, Peter Teixeira Jr., Mekhi Graves and Kyle Bullard each helped design, build and paint their own miniature wooden libraries, which were officially unveiled with a ribbon-cutting in Degnan Park on June 29. Residents who stop by each box are encouraged to take any adult or children’s book they find inside and to leave behind some books of their own. That way everyone has access to free books for as long as the honor system allows. The mini libraries are located in Degnan Park, Colgate Park, Redwood Elementary School, O’Connor Park and the West Orange Community House.

The project was spearheaded by Harold’s mother Jackie Bazan-Ross, who was assigned to help the then-Cub Scouts earn their craftsmanship badges. Bazan-Ross told the West Orange Chronicle that she wanted to do a project with deep meaning to both the boys and the community. So when John Fabula, one of the five volunteer mentors who helped the Scouts with the project, mentioned the Little Free Libraries nonprofit organization, which promotes such book exchanges, she thought the idea was perfect.

“We stress in every single meeting and every single outing the importance of citizenship and community service and what you can do individually to make your community better,” Bazan-Ross said prior to the ribbon-cutting event. “We act always as an organization, but (we tell them) ‘You as an individual can make a difference.’ And this project enabled them to do that.”

Cubmaster Peter Teixeira Sr., Peter’s father, pointed out that the project also enabled the Scouts to learn about the importance of book accessibility. Teixeira said reading is vital to a young person’s development, which is why he takes his children to the West Orange Public Library almost every other week. But he said a lot of boys and girls do not read very often, and it is not always by choice.

“We’re pretty blessed and privileged to live in a town that has a great library, however there are a lot of kids who don’t have access to the library just because of their parents’ schedule,” Teixeira told the Chronicle, adding that the Scouts’ project seeks to remedy that. “I think it’s an important thing to make these books available to any child who would like to get a new book.”

The fact that the little libraries have been placed in areas where people of all ages can easily reach them increases the likelihood that more residents will be able to read, Teixeira said.

Literacy is an important issue both locally and worldwide. According to the results of the 2012 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies survey, the last wide-scale literacy study of adults ages 16 to 65 conducted in the United States, only 13 percent of U.S. adults were able to read at the highest Level 4/5. Most, or 36 percent, scored at the second highest Level 3, while 4 percent scored less than Level 1. Overall, the United States’ average score was 272, which was just below the 273 average of the 32 other countries taking part in the study. When compared to other nations’ individual scores, the United States’ 272 falls in the middle of a range spanning Italy’s 250 and Japan’s 296.

Literacy is vital because those without reading skills tend to have limited options in life. According to statistics from the nonprofit ProLiteracy, 43 percent of adults with the lowest literacy abilities live in poverty while 75 percent of state prison inmates can be classified as low literate. Additionally, ProLiteracy reports that unemployment caused by low literacy costs the United States at least $225 billion each year due to nonproductivity in the workforce, crime and loss of tax revenue.

Experts agree that getting children to read is a key way of ensuring their future success in school and beyond. In fact, a 2010 study from the Reading is Fundamental nonprofit found that children given access to books at early ages are able to better understand the basics of reading, improve their reading skills and read more frequently as they learn to enjoy books. The absence of literature in a child’s life can also hurt them down the road. National Assessment for Educational Progress statistics results show that 64 percent of fourth-graders read at or below a basic level in 2015, with RIF stating that they will do progressively worse as curriculums get more difficult in the upper grades.

But as Teixeira alluded to, not all children have access to books — especially those from low-income families. A study published in 2006’s Handbook of Early Literacy Research Vol. 2 found that middle-income homes have an average of 13 books per child while there is only one book for every 300 children from low-income neighborhoods. This is detrimental because, according to a 2010 study in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, children who grew up in homes filled with books are 20 percent more likely to finish college.

The fact that these little libraries will allow residents to bring more books into their homes was not lost on the Scouts. Harold said he is glad to have completed the project because everyone should have access to books, regardless of their backgrounds. He said books play a pivotal role in expanding people’s imaginations, and reading itself is an essential skill.

Above all, Harold stressed that reading books is what lets people understand themselves and the world around them, which is crucial for humankind’s survival.

“Reading is what brought us to what we are,” Harold told the Chronicle after the ribbon-cutting. “We wouldn’t be here without reading. Reading is everything.”

Seun also knows the benefits of books firsthand. The Scout told the Chronicle that reading makes him happy, especially when he has a book that makes him laugh. But he knows that books are not just for fun. He pointed out that they lead people to getting good jobs and to bright futures.

Peter is also an avid reader, listing Katherine Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia” and a comic book version of the Bible as some of his favorite literature. In fact, he said he reads whenever he has free time. And he hopes other children will also, by using the book exchanges, since it will benefit them in the long run, he said.

“They can feed their brains,” Peter said after the event. “It’ll make them get smarter and smarter.”

But Bazan-Ross said the free libraries would not have been possible without the support of several people, starting with the five volunteers who worked with the Scouts. She said Fabula, Max Grossman, Dana Hagstrom, Gil Malave and Margo Dudley gave up hours of their weekends to teach the boys about craftsmanship, overseeing their progress and helping them construct the libraries. But most importantly, she said they also showed them the importance of mentorship. And she hopes that is a lesson that stays with them.

“We want them to understand that all of these things that have been afforded to them in terms of mentorship and direction need to be passed on by them,” Bazan-Ross said. “All of that is part of the mission of the Scouts.”

Bazan-Ross also lauded Home Depot for donating more than $600 worth of building supplies to the project, and Sherwin-Williams for giving approximately $100 to $200 worth of paint and materials for the cause.

But Sherwin-Williams Multi-Segment Sales Representative Jay Sabur and Bloomfield Assistant Manager Howie Villamayor said it was their pleasure to help. Sabur said their company makes it a point to support such causes whenever possible, and did not think twice about getting Bazan-Ross whatever she needed. Just seeing the finished result made it all worthwhile, Villamayor said.

“It’s just a good feeling to try to give back to the community through our company and our job,” Villamayor told the Chronicle while waiting for the ceremony to start.

Of course, the Scouts needed the township’s approval before embarking on the project, and the administration gave more than the OK. According to Bazan-Ross, the town also volunteered to install the libraries and even collected donations for them. She said that money will pay for registering them with the Little Free Libraries website, which will include West Orange’s five on its online map, making them easy to find.

For Mayor Robert Parisi, getting behind the project was an easy decision. Parisi said the concept of the book exchange is an excellent way of getting today’s technology-obsessed children to discover the “timelessness” of books, pointing out that many other communities are implementing little libraries of their own. Indeed, Little Free Libraries reports that there are currently more than 40,000 such libraries around the world.

Additionally, Parisi told the Chronicle that the township is always interested in supporting any young people willing to pursue positive initiatives.

“Any time children take it upon themselves to follow through with a project from A to Z is great for parents, Scout leaders and the community to see,” Parisi said. “Anything we can do to encourage that is part of what our responsibility is as neighbors, as parents and as government.”

Photos by Sean Quinn and Jacqueline Bazan-Ross