The call came last week for Oneco Elementary teacher Jennifer Slattery.
A mom of one of her kindergarten students was on the line. The mom had been reading these brand new books to her daughter each night, and she wanted to know more.
"She wanted to know, 'Do I get to keep these books?''" Slattery said.
Slattery explained that, yes, the books her daughter brought home were a gift from the Books for Kids program.
That mother might never know Ted Lindenberg, but the Lakewood Ranch resident has had an impact on that child, and that family.
Lindenberg would cry foul, saying that it is the many volunteers who have made the Books for Kids program work, and not just him.
Books for Kids creates impact
But the facts remain. After joining the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch in 2014, Lindenberg convinced the club and its members that they could have a great impact on area children through a books and reading program.
"Most Rotary programs were distributing dictionaries, and that was what we were doing in Lakewood Ranch, and it was wonderful," Lindenberg said. "But it wasn't enough. If we were going to make a difference in the lives of children, we needed to move. We needed to get books into their hands, and we wanted to get someone to go to the classrooms to develop a relationship, to help with comprehension, critical thinking and character development."
The program started that year with five Rotarians as volunteers, eventually distributing 300 books that school year at Ballard Elementary in Bradenton, helping 100 children.
"Every year it has continued to grow," said Lindenberg, who has continued to lead the program as chairperson throughout. "It took on a life of its own. Those five volunteers have become close to 150. We want them to transfer the love of reading from the volunteer to the child."
The approximately 150 volunteers now go into 174 classes at 10 School District of Manatee County elementary schools. The goal for the Rotary program this school year is to distribute 32,000 books which will bring the program to about 200,000 books distributed since its inception. The program has helped more than 14,000 children in its nine years.
Books for Kids volunteers go into first through third grade classes at elementary schools once a month to distribute books and, starting last year, the program now has added a kindergarten weekly mentoring program.
Books for Kids has received the Florida State Education Award, the Manatee County Civic Partnership Award, recognition from the Board of Education of Manatee County, and a letter of recognition from Congressman Vern Buchanan.
Humanitarian of the year
On Nov. 9 at the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club, Lindenberg will be honored with the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund's 2023 C. John A. Clarke Humanitarian Award. It will be awarded during the Soiree at the Ranch, which is the Community Fund's major annual fundraising event.
"He has built the program into what it is today," said River Club's Douglas DuPouy, a Books for Kids volunteer and a lifetime educator who experienced the Books for Kids program firsthand when he was principal at Orange Ridge-Bullock Elementary in Bradenton. "The importance is just getting books into kids' hands. Kids crave those books, and he worked countless hours into getting the job done.
"He is just a highly involved, caring person who looks out for kids."
Susan Travilla, who taught at Bradenton-area schools for 33 years, is co-coordinator of the kindergarten program with Joanne Vernon.
"Ted has done an amazing job," Travilla said. "We are here (in the kindergarten program) on a weekly basis for 21 weeks. We bring books of high quality each week and (the tutors) work with the kids for 30 minutes. It is one-on-one time with an adult that a lot of these kids don't get. We are not teaching them as much as we are exposing them to good literature. We talk to them on a higher level."
Travilla called Lindenberg a person "on the front lines who makes it easy to put it all together."
Although Lindenberg no longer reads to the kids as when the program first started, Travilla said he shows up every week to visit with the kids.
In mid-October, Lindenberg was at Oneco, talking to the kindergarten students before they joined their Books for Kids mentors for reading.
"It doesn't matter the age group," Travilla said. "He makes it fun."
Slattery agrees. She was somewhat concerned when her class joined the kindergarten program this year that her students would be wary of working with an adult they didn't know for a 30-minute reading program.
"But they ran right over (to the mentors)," Slattery said. "I thought they would have a hard time. This is not pretty good. This is amazing."
Lindenberg was nominated for the humanitarian award by Lakewood Ranch's James Wingert, a fellow Rotary member who said besides working with Books for Kids, Lindenberg helps to put on the Rotary's annual Suncoast Winefest that will be held Nov. 11. Wingert said Lindenberg also serves as the Rotary's sergeant-at-arms.
He said Lindenberg is excellent in coordinating all the school district guidelines that allow Books for Kids to go into the classes and that he has worked hard in getting teachers on board with the program.
A big day
Although Lindenberg continued to insist he is a small part of Books for Kids, he said Nov. 9 would have been a big day for his parents, William and Dorothy Lindenberg, who have passed away.
"My wish is that they would have lived to have seen this," he said of the 2023 C. John A. Clarke Humanitarian Award. "Their values were extremely important to them."
Lindenberg grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s. His father, an immigrant from Austria, worked for a hat company and eventually owned his own clothing business, a venture that went bad. Even so, Lindenberg enjoyed his childhood.
"Everyone should grow up in Brooklyn," he said. "it is a fantastic place. Neighborhoods are so important because of the relationships that are established. Everyone on the street was able to do things together. We played stickball, punchball. And I was a (Brooklyn) Dodgers fan."
After graduating from Fordham University, Lindenberg said he had no idea what he was going to do. He worked for a couple of publishing companies, but said he wasn't out among people enough.
He eventually turned to the department of education in New York City because there was a shortage of teachers. At PS 189 in Brooklyn, he taught sixth graders and learned important lessons on the job.
"I loved it, but it was a tough area in the 1970s with tough kids," he said. "The kids were all over the place and I wondered what I would do to manage the class."
One student went to a window — they were on the fifth floor — opened it and threatened to jump. Lindenberg went to the window with him, looked down and said, "I will bring all (the other students) down there and we will look at you. It's a long way down."
The student decided it was a bad idea, and Lindenberg had won over the class.
"There is nothing like practical experience," he said. "With 25 sixth graders in front of you, you have to react on your feet to every single situation."
It was obvious at Oneco Elementary that students still have a strong rapport with Lindenberg, who spent much of his education career as an administrator. They constantly came up to him to say hello.
But Lindenberg said it's not just the students who have benefitted from Books for Kids. The volunteers have enjoyed their time with the students.
Bill McConnell, a senior who is a 27-year-veteran of the U.S. Navy, finished reading to kindergarten students and then approached Lindenberg before he left Oneco. He thanked Lindenberg for putting together the program.
McConnell was asked why working with the students meant so much to him.
"This program restores your soul, and your faith in humanity," McConnell said.
Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.