Rotarians at Lakewood Ranch ensure that every child has the chance to enjoy reading. | Eastern County

In January 2020, Ted Lindenberg was conducting fieldwork for his role as Director of Books for Kids in the second grade class at Oneco Elementary. A retired elementary school teacher, Lindenberg mingled easily with children. As he stopped to meet each student, he asked a young girl how she was.

“I felt like she was a happy kid, happy at home, happy at school, and she was very verbal,” Lindenberg recalled. “She told me she liked school, except when reading time started — so, she said, ‘I get mad.’ I asked, ‘Why? You do such a good job. She said, ‘I have trouble reading. I want to be able to.’

“It made me even more motivated to help these girls and boys.”

Not that Lindenberg needs any extra motivation. In 2010, after retiring and moving to Lakewood Ranch from suburban New York, he joined several charities, including the Rotary Club of Lakewood Ranch. Three years later, he approached the administration to launch a program under the aegis of Rotary whose mission would be to raise the reading level of elementary school students.

And just like that, Books for Kids was born.

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

In its first year, Books For Kids had five volunteers and distributed 600 books to approximately 100 students in grades one through three. In 2019, the charity had 125 volunteers, many of whom visited classrooms to read aloud, lead discussions and give each student 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)

Many children served by Books for Kids do not read well. Based on 2022 standardized test scores, 49% of third-graders in Manatee County read at the 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 largely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lindenberg and his volunteers are passionate about promoting children’s literacy. It’s a problem that comes and goes but never seems to go away. Kindergarten to third grade are crucial years, he says, because after that it is extremely difficult for the student to catch up. This deficiency creates a domino effect that negatively influences the young person’s performance in other classes and in life.

Just two months after Lindenberg’s momentous visit to Oneco Elementary, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to classroom reading sessions. But Books for Kids has branched out into delivering books to schools. Some volunteers have transitioned to one-on-one mentoring sessions via Zoom. And a few, including Judy Handleman, have held in-person classes. 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 lessons. Soon Vargas’ other son, Lester, and his daughter Mirza joined them.

“It was tough because all three kids were reading at different levels, but we were doing pretty well under the circumstances,” says Handleman, who taught for 17 years at schools in downtown Kansas City. She used visual aids to reinforce her vocabulary lessons. For example, the word “calm” required a photo of a relaxed person for children to understand.

But the words were only the beginning. Young people had to learn to write them in one sentence as well as understand the meaning of written passages, among other tasks, all to reach their required 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 the reality that I couldn’t always be a mom and a teacher at the same time,” she says. “Any help anyone can give to improve my children’s reading is welcome.”

Books for Kids’ steady growth is due in part to a basic but labor-intensive logistics system. The nonprofit pays a distributor $2 per book. The team selects titles that appeal to the wide range of interests among 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 of the hundreds of tracks 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 the books and put them in bags. Before COVID, classroom volunteers brought the bags on their visits, but once the pandemic hit, Rotarian volunteers drove each of the bags to the appropriate school.

Lindenberg says the program’s annual budget is about $60,000, which is used to purchase books, supplies and pay rent for storage space. All the money is given. 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 reached a milestone by distributing its 100,000th book.

Books For Kids volunteers are due back in class for the 2022-2023 school year. In June, Lindenberg said his goal was to send 150 volunteers to teach reading lessons, as well as adding a one-on-one tutoring program once a week for kindergarteners.

Lindenberg estimates that he devotes about three hours a day to Books For Kids. It takes weekends.

“My wife says to me, ‘You are retired. Why do you want to run an entire company now? he laughs. “But the important thing is that I like it, and I believe we are making a difference.”

If you are interested in volunteering or donating, contact Ted Lindenberg directly at 845-304-5793 or [email protected]. To learn more about children’s books, visit FLBooksForKids.org.


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