Record numbers sign up to read

Library enrolls 11,232 children in first days of summer program

July 03, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Maybe it's because of the tote bags. Or the orange-and-white rubber awareness bracelets. Or the free books.

Whatever the reason, the Wild About Reading program at the Harford County Public Library is more successful than ever, with 11,232 children enrolled by June 29, the ninth day of the program.

By comparison, the program last year signed up 12,571 for the entire summer, said Audra L. Caplan, the library director.

Library officials point to the sharp increase in money raised to pay for bigger incentives, as well as visits to schools by staffers to make children aware of the program before summer vacation, as reasons for the overwhelming response.

"The first day was beyond our wildest expectations," she said of June 20, when 4,115 children signed up, more than three times the number of previous years. "Every branch has had record attendance."

In Bel Air alone, 1,200 signed up, and throughout the county, library branches were swamped with youngsters, she said.

"Here in Aberdeen, we had close to 500 children lined up the first day," said Sarah Wollaston, children's librarian at the Aberdeen branch and co-head of the summer reading program. "Usually that's what we have the first two weeks. And it was like that all over the county. We were absolutely blown away. ... In past years, we might have signed up 75 or 80 children on the first day."

The branch had posted two teen volunteers to help with the signup, but three librarians wound up pitching in, Wollaston said. Even then, she said, the line was long.

"People were very patient," she said. "It was almost a fair-like atmosphere. People were all excited about it."

The summer reading program is sponsored by the state Department of Education and the state's public libraries. Every year, a statewide theme is chosen -- this year it's Wild About Reading -- but each county can tailor the program by offering different challenges and awards. The Say What program is for teens, and the Read to Me program is for preschoolers.

This year, the incentives in Harford County are particularly generous. Just for signing up, preschoolers and elementary-aged children get a lime-green Wild About Reading tote bag, and high-schoolers get a black Say What backpack. Both are stuffed with coupons. Readers of all ages get a rubber Livestrong-style bracelet.

And after they have read the required number of books, they get more coupons and prizes, including a free book. In each age category, kids can choose from titles such as Goodnight Moon and Curious George for the youngest bookworms to Charlie and the Glass Elevator, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Monster for older readers.

Readers who finish the program by Aug. 27 also enter a raffle for a "jungle basket" filled with T-shirts, hats, coupons, games and other prizes. Two such baskets are being given away at each of the 10 library branches.

To qualify for the raffle and other prizes, elementary pupils in Wild About Reading must finish 10 books, middle school and high school students participating in Say What must read three, and preschoolers in the Read to Me program must have 25 books read to them, Caplan said.

Dolores Jefferson, a library assistant at the Aberdeen branch, said her three sons, ages 11, 14 and 16, signed up. "My 11-year-old is finished already," she said. "He only needed to read three [books], but he read 10."

The boost in incentives is the result of money raised by the Harford County Public Library Foundation, an independent, nonprofit entity. The foundation raised $35,000 this year, up from about $6,000 last year, said Vanessa Milio, development specialist for the library foundation.

Milio said she wanted to improve the program because studies have shown that summer reading is an important way for kids to stay sharp when school is out.

"When I started in October, I pledged to raise $20,000, which had never been done before," Milio said. She wound up raising much more.

"The response was just so overwhelming," she said. "I think it just truly was a testament to the library and the fact that people just believe in the program."

The foundation received support from many local businesses as well.

"We're just really happy," Caplan said.

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