Books with Wings: organization puts books into hands of First Nations youth
When I attended the Canada Reads launch, I sat with Vicki Ziegler, also known as @BookGaga on Twitter. After the final contenders were announced, I told Vicki that for the past few years I'd been jotting down the order in which I thought the books might be voted "off the shelf" and sealing them in an envelope until the day the winner was revealed. I asked—dared—her to do the same, and she upped the ante by suggesting that we agree to play on behalf of a literacy or books organization, the "loser" making a donation on the winner's behalf.
If you'd like to follow our Canada Reads Challenge, and play along, Vicki's covering the progress on her blog. Vicki's playing for Neighbourhood Link. I'm playing for Books with Wings: A Literacy Project. Their goal is to get books into the hands of First Nations youth.
From Books with Wings:
Literacy is essential to future employment, opportunity, and sustainable living. The literacy rates and levels of education of First Nations children and adults (particularly those living on reserve), are far inferior to those of non-aboriginals living in Canada. According to a recent article in the National Post, “[u]pwards of 60% of the roughly 110,000 students in hundreds of on-reserve schools across the country will fail to complete high school, and fewer than 30,000 of Canada’s million aboriginals have university degrees." Moreover, a First Nations child receives approximately $2000 less in government funding than a non-aboriginal child. While these discrepancies cannot be solved through any one initiative in education, Books With Wings hopes to complement current government projects in literacy to provide children with storybooks of their own. The books will thus travel from one child to another, “with wings”, uniting cultures and educating non-aboriginal children on the current crisis in literacy which affects thousands of First Nations children.
Second Story Press recently published Shannen and the Dream for a School by Janet Wilson, which retells the tale of young Shannen Koostachin and the people of Attawapiskat, a Cree community in Northern Ontario, who have been fighting for a new school since 1979, when a fuel spill contaminated their original school building. (Shannen died tragically in 2010, but Shannen's Dream keeps the grueling fight alive.) Given the devastating news—I was going to say "of late", but it's been going on far too long—coming out of First Nations reserves—the horrendous living conditions and genuine threats to education, First Nations youth and any sense of hope, in general—I thought it particularly timely to talk with Anna Rosner, the founder of Books with Wings, about the importance of building ties between First Nations and non-aboriginal youth, as well as the need to get books into the hands of First Nations youth.
Julie Wilson: Is there a personal back story to your decision to make the leap from impassioned, politically-charged citizen to a full-fledged team of support workers?
Anna Rosner: Although I’ve been working with children in various educational contexts since I was a teenager, Books With Wings was inspired by a personal tragedy. My best friend passed away in 2009, and I wanted to find a way to honour her memory. Sarah had a Master’s of Social Work and was a gifted counsellor, so I considered creating a scholarship for underprivileged children in her name. The idea was short-lived; in 2010, I became a member of the advisory cabinet at the charitable organization ONEXONE, which supports children worldwide in the areas of health, education, water, hunger, and play. The cabinet chose to focus on fundraising for ONEXONE’s First Nations Breakfast Program, which currently serves a healthful breakfast to over 3000 children in remote communities.
I began to research First Nations education in depth. I knew aboriginal children lacked educational opportunity, but I didn’t realize to what extent. Secondary education is beyond the reach of many students living on isolated reserves: high schools simply don’t exist, and many students are forced to leave home to complete their diplomas, although the federal government has recently developed an Internet high school which allows some First Nations students to stay in their communities while studying. Generally speaking, the great funding divide between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students is devastating to First Nations education, contributing significantly to drop-out rates. The more I learned, the more I understood that I needed to address this issue however I could. So I created Books With Wings, dedicating it to Sarah’s memory. At first I managed the project independently, but progress was slow. When my friends Joanne and Linda suggested collaborating, I was thrilled. Shortly after, other friends committed to child welfare, education and literacy also began to express interest, and suddenly I had a wonderful team of people who all had the same goal: to give every child a sense of hope and possibility.
JW: Tell us a bit about your team and their background. Why are they drawn to working with Books with Wings and its commitment to succeed?
AR: I have an incredible, dynamic team with diverse and complementary strengths. My friend Linda Ness, with whom I went to graduate school at U of T, teaches adult literacy skills; she is a tireless volunteer. I don’t think I could ever make a move without her input! Joanne McFadden has dedicated her professional life to the non-profit sector and has worked with First Nations communities in British Columbia; as long as I’ve known her, she’s been reaching out to individuals in need. Shelley Allen, my sister-in-law, is a registered art therapist, and her instincts with children are extraordinary. Shelley works with families in crisis and supports the child through artistic creation. Finally, my friend Deborah Kaplan helps with the financial aspects of the project. She worked in the non-profit sector for years, so her expertise is invaluable.
All the members of Books With Wings are dedicated child advocates who recognize injustice and the unnecessary suffering of our First Nations children. I think we see the project as a potential way to ease some of this suffering and connect with children who may feel alone. The current crisis in Attawapiskat comes as a shock to the general public, but Attawapiskat is not an isolated incident. There are close to 100 reserves in the same appalling situation. One of our schools has no grade six textbooks, and the library is unusable due to a foul mould which has infested the roof and shelves. The school has no funds for repairs, so some of our books are given to the children as gifts, while others are kept in classrooms. It’s just impossible for me to accept the status quo: what is a school without a library and textbooks?
JW: I say "succeed," but I suspect your hope really is to connect through a series of meaningful interactions with the children, both First Nations and non-aboriginal. If each connection can be deemed a personal success, what are some of your favourite success stories to date?
AR: Books With Wings was born slowly; I needed time to understand how the project would be most effective. Sending books to improve literacy skills is one thing, but creating a meaningful relationship with a child living thousands of miles away is another. I’ve devoted my professional life to teaching, and learned along the way that forging a personal connection with students is the best way to reach them. So I decided to include letters in 10% to 30% of all books, hoping the children would reflect on the works they received. My favourite letter thus far comes from a child named Chasity who commented on a Mo Willems book entitled My Friend is Sad, which is actually a very funny story. In my letter, I asked Chasity what made her sad, and she replied that she was sad when there was no deep snow for sliding down the hill at her reserve’s crisis centre and child welfare agency, Awasis. Although the crisis centre is undoubtedly a place of grief, she seemed to see it in a positive light: a great place for sledding. Her letter made me think of Mary-Louise Gay’s book Stella, Queen of the Snow, so I purchased it and sent it to her in a special envelope with stickers and a new letter. We continue to correspond, and I feel as though I’m getting to know her. Books With Wings really hopes to develop a personal relationship with every student who writes to us. Responding to the children is by far our favourite part of the project; it’s extremely rewarding. We want the children to understand that someone far away cares about them, is listening to their thoughts, and hopes to correspond with them on a long-term basis.
JW: Can you tell us a bit about your sponsors-to-date and how they came to be involved?
AR: The response to Books With Wings has been truly overwhelming. When the project first began, I relied entirely on the generosity of parents at Toronto nursery schools, where I collected new books and distributed information on First Nations education. I was later fortunate enough to receive a substantial grant from the Dreamcatcher Foundation, which supports First Nations children through arts, education, health and sport. Their generosity will enable us to send approximately 1,500 books to a First Nations school in northern Manitoba. Scholastic Canada has also been wonderful; they offered a generous book donation, as well as a significant discount on many titles, and First Book Canada will be offering us books later this month. Finally, through ONEXONE, I was connected to Lanita Layton, managing director of HUGO BOSS CANADA, and sent her a proposal. After numerous emails, HUGO BOSS held a fundraiser in November and made an extraordinary contribution to Books With Wings. So, little by little, we’ve been able to expand from private, public and corporate generosity. In the non-profit business, you have to be aggressive; we learned months ago that the squeaky wheel gets the book!
JW: How can publishers become involved, and what level of participation or commitment are you seeking?
AR: Publishers can donate any amount of high-quality children’s books; we refuse nothing and appreciate everything! We were thrilled to receive four stunning children’s books from the iconic Canadian artist Charles Pachter. Every book helps.
Publicity and word-of-mouth is also very welcome. The project’s main objective is essentially twofold: Books with Wings aims to encourage literacy in First Nations children who may not have the means to purchase books of their own, and to educate the public on the existing challenges in education affecting our First Nations. We’re happy to discuss the project with anyone who’s interested. For more information, I can be reached at email@example.com. Thanks to our talented web developer Ian Shell-Macleod from www.iandoes.net, our new website can be viewed at www.books-with-wings.org. We also love to receive comments on our Facebook page.
Books with Wings doesn’t (yet!) have charitable status, but we are considering it. If we do receive a monetary donation, we spend it wisely and send the original receipts to the donor. All of our finances are available upon request; we believe in full transparency.
Below: Canadian Geographic's November 2010 video "Still Waiting in Attawapiskat: Will Canada Fail the Next Generation of First Nations Students?"
Linda Ness, mentioned in the above interview, volunteers twice a week with an adult learner through the Toronto Public Library. (Go here to learn more about how you can volunteer, too.) I asked Linda if she would speak to the issue of pride and self-confidence that comes accompanies the challenge and fear of learning to read.
"Through my work with adult learners, I have seen firsthand the impact low literacy can have on people’s lives. For someone who has difficulty reading, taking public transit, going to the grocery store, paying a bill—never mind filling in a job application or sending an email—can often be a huge challenge. But even more than that, having to rely on other people to do the things that you or I would probably consider to be minor annoyances can destroy a person’s self-confidence.
I’ve seen a man literally shake from head to toe when he finally worked up the courage to start learning to read because he was embarrassed not to be able to do something most people take for granted. But I’ve also been lucky enough to see the self-assurance that comes when a learner manages to do something she wasn’t able to do before. I have a student who recently came to a lesson beaming away because she had managed to cross Toronto—a two-hour journey that involved two subway lines and two buses—by herself for the very first time, at the age of 53. This was all because she was able to distinguish between the words ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’ and ‘west’. That’s what 'literacy as freedom' means.
Children who have the chance to work on their literacy skills at a young age are obviously far less likely to face these types of challenges later in life. Interestingly, kids who have regular access to books—specifically, kids who own books—are much more likely to develop strong literacy skills, enjoy all types of reading and generally have confidence in themselves. This is really at the heart of what we are doing at Books With Wings. A gift of a book to a child who might not own one is not just a nice gesture. It’s one more step toward empowerment.”