NEWARK, NJ - For Naomi Salazar, a second-grader at South 17th Street Elementary School in Newark, reading isn't just fundamental, it's a foundation of hope.
"I feel sad that they don't have any books to read, and I want to share my books so they can read them," 8-year-old Naomi said. She and her school are involved in a program to provide books to school children in Puerto Rico, which is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria.
"I like to read because I like the adventures in the book. Reading is always a part of me, and I want it to be part of them," she said.
Naomi was one of about 25 students at the school library on Tuesday who gathered around a collection of books they will soon donate. The United Way's My Very Own Library program has been consistently promoting literacy at schools like South 17th Street for years. It provides 10 books for each student before summer break for free. Since its inception almost a decade ago, the My Very Own Library program has donated over 200,000 books to public school students in Newark and community libraries around the city.
Students at South 17th Street School will now choose and send some of the books they received to the Abraham Lincoln School in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Each donated book will include a book review written by a South 17th Street student. Abraham Lincoln School students will write their own reviews of the books, then send them from San Juan to Newark, giving the newly-linked students a chance to practice their English and Spanish language skills.
"This is about giving books, and giving back. This is way to show our students who are receiving library books that they too can give back and share with the students in Puerto Rico," Catherine Wilson, president and CEO for United Way of Essex and West Hudson, said. "It's an opportunity for them to learn about community service and the power of giving."
Staff at the school pointed out that this type pf power transcends both geographic and socioeconomic borders.
"Reading takes you places where you normally don't go," said Clarence Allen, principal of South 17th Street School.
"Even though they're far away, we're still close. We have the same interests and desires. These kids can not only relate, but have a relationship with these other children," said Felicia Smith-Bryant, literacy coach and coordinator of the My Very Own Library program at South 17th Street School. "If a girl gives her best book away at age 8, how much will she give at age 10 and beyond? This is so powerful."
Carolina Castellanos, an English teacher at American Lincoln School, said most of her students mostly live in the La Perla section of Old San Juan, one of the most devastated areas of Puerto Rico's capital following Hurricane Maria's landfall last September.
"These books go home to kids who live in a very poor community. The kids have lost so many things. Some families still don't have power," said Castellanos. "Reading can bring communities together. Books bring comfort."
Naomi said she hopes she and her fellow students from Newark can help Puerto Rican kids get some needed comfort.
"It's all about the books. We need to read all that we can so we can understand what is happening in the world and what is going on," Naomi said. "I'm happy I'm doing this because I want the other kids to be happy just like me."