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Lakewood Ranch Rotarians ensure every kid gets the chance to love reading

A retired educator who moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2010, Ted Lindenberg is a fervent advocator for childhood literacy — one book and one child at a time.


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  • | 12:09 p.m. August 16, 2022
  • East County
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In January 2020, Ted Lindenberg was conducting field work for his role as director of Books for Kids in the second-grade classroom at Oneco Elementary. A retired elementary school educator, Lindenberg mixed easily with the children. As he stopped to meet each student, he asked one young girl how she was doing.

“I had the impression she was a happy child, happy at home, happy in school, and she was very verbal,” Lindenberg recalls. “She said to me that she liked school, except when reading period began — then, she said, ‘I get upset.’ I asked, ‘Why? You’re doing such a great job.’ She said, ‘I struggle with reading. I want to be able to do it.’

“That spurred me even more to help these girls and boys.”

Not that Lindenberg needed the extra motivation. In 2010, after retiring and moving to Lakewood Ranch from suburban New York City, he joined several charitable organizations, among them the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch. Three years later, he approached the leadership about starting a program under the Rotary umbrella whose mission would be to raise the reading levels of elementary school students.

And just like that Books for Kids was born.

Lindenberg zeroed in on Title I schools, in which 40% of the students come from low-income families. Books for Kids now serves all 10 of the Title I elementary schools in Manatee County and two in Sarasota County.

The first year, Books For Kids had five volunteers and distributed 600 books to about 100 students in first to third grades. By 2019, the charity had grown to include 125 volunteers, many of whom visited classrooms to read aloud, lead discussions, and gift each student with a new book. The initiative collectively distributed 25,000 books to 130 classrooms that year.

Volunteer Judy Handleman shares a book with Ariel Trego at a Books for Kids’ event in July at The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature. (Photo by Lori Sax)
Volunteer Judy Handleman shares a book with Ariel Trego at a Books for Kids’ event in July at The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature. (Photo by Lori Sax)

Many of the children served by Books for Kids do not read proficiently. Based on 2022 standardized test scores, 49% of third graders in Manatee County read at grade level, compared to 66% in Sarasota County and 53% statewide. In 2019, 58% of third graders in Florida passed the test. The five-point drop is attributed in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lindenberg and his volunteers are fervent about promoting childhood literacy. It’s a problem that waxes and wanes but never seems to go away. Kindergarten through third grade are crucial years, he says, because after that it’s extremely difficult for the student to catch up. This deficiency creates a domino effect that adversely influences the youngster’s performance in other classes and in life.

Just two months after Lindenberg’s memorable visit to Oneco Elementary, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to the classroom reading sessions. But Books for Kids forged on delivering books to schools. Some volunteers switched to conducting individual tutoring sessions via Zoom. And a few, including Judy Handleman, arranged in-person lessons. Once a week, the retired elementary school teacher drove the 15 miles from her home in Lakewood Ranch to the Palmetto Branch Library, where she met Elsa Vargas and her son Zion for reading instruction. Soon enough, Vargas’ other son Lester and daughter Mirza were joining in.

“It was difficult because the three kids read at different levels, but we did pretty well under the circumstances,” says Handleman, who taught for 17 years in inner city schools in Kansas City. She used visual aids to reinforce her vocabulary lessons. For instance, the word “calm” required a photo of a relaxed person for the kids to understand it.

But words were just the start. The youngsters needed to learn how to write them in a sentence as well as comprehend the meaning of written passages, among other tasks — all to attain their requisite reading level. Vargas, who moved to Palmetto from Guatemala in 2011 and heard about Books For Kids through her children’s school, is grateful for the program. “I had to face reality that I could not always be mom and teacher at the same time,” she says. “Any help that someone can give to improve my kids’ reading is welcome.”

The steady growth of Books for Kids is due in part to a basic yet work-intensive logistical system. The nonprofit pays a distributor $2 per book. The team selects titles that appeal to the wide range of interests among the children, most of whom are minorities. “Mango,” “Abuela and Me,” “I Love My Hair,” and “It’s Brave to Be Kind” are just a few examples from the hundreds of titles available.

The books are stored in the annex of a building in Palmetto, where teams of Rotarians come once a month to open boxes, put labels on books and place them in bags. Pre-COVID, the in-class volunteers would bring the bags during their visits, but once the pandemic hit, volunteer Rotarians drove each of the bags to the appropriate school.

Lindenberg says that the program’s annual budget is approximately $60,000, which is used to buy books, supplies and pay rent on the storage space. All of the money is donated. Not a single person collects a penny for their efforts.

In 2021, Books for Kids delivered 33,000 books to 181 classrooms. In March 2022, the program surpassed a milestone by distributing its 100,000th book.

Books For Kids’ volunteers are due back in classrooms full-force for the 2022-23 school year. In June, Lindenberg said his goal was to send 150 volunteers out to conduct reading lessons, as well as to add a one-on-one, once-a-week tutoring program for kindergartners.

Lindenberg reckons that he puts in about three hours a day for Books For Kids. He takes weekends off.

“My wife says to me, ‘You’re retired. Why do you want to run a whole business now?’” he says with a laugh. “But the important thing is that I love it, and I believe that we’re making a difference.”

If you’re interested in volunteering or donating, contact Ted Lindenberg directly at 845-304-5793 or stlin[email protected] To learn more about Books for Kids, visit FLBooksForKids.org.

 

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