`Costume is the hook' in drawing kids to books

December 14, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Veronica Henderson can cause quite a stir when she's teaching children to read.

Several times a year, she paints her face and dons a Cat in the Hat costume on visits to homeless shelters and schools. The spectacle prompts the curious children to assemble quickly and pay close attention, Henderson said. Even the older ones want to get in on the gathering.

"The costume is the hook," said Henderson, the custodian of records for the Baltimore County public school system. "The Cat in the Hat is a recognizable character for children of all ages."

In addition to visits to shelters, Henderson's three decades of volunteer efforts have included raising money for scholarships and a youth baseball league, becoming a national advocate for support personnel in education and starting a program through the school system to collect toiletries for homeless shelters.

Last month, the Baltimore resident earned national recognition, being honored as Education Support Professional of the Year. She was one of 26 nominees nationwide for the honor given by the National Education Association. Henderson received a trophy and $10,000 from the Gardner Rich Foundation, half of which is to be used for a community project of the recipient's choice.

Hiliary Thornton, an administrative secretary for the school system, nominated Henderson for the honor, and praised her efforts as a mentor.

"Veronica got me involved in everything I do," Thornton said. "She is just incredible. She has exposed me to things I never would have done on my own."

Henderson recruited Thornton to go to the INNterim shelters, which are residential facilities for homeless mothers and their children.

"Homeless shelters are Veronica's passion," she said. "She is so involved with the children and trying to help them. She made me want to help."

While donning the costume, Henderson promotes reading by taking part in the annual event to celebrate reading on the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, the author of The Cat in the Hat.

"If you can instill a love of reading in a child, he or she usually ends up being successful," said Henderson, who has worked for the county school system for 27 years.

Henderson has a knack for working with children in shelters, said Carl Love, homeless education and Title I liaison for county public schools.

"Most of the kids in the shelters have not had many positive experiences," said Love, who has worked with Henderson on several initiatives for homeless children. "But when Veronica goes into the shelter, she takes their minds off their troubles."

Henderson's inclination to help children began at home many years ago. The oldest of six, Henderson became a surrogate mother to her siblings, she said.

"I became the protector and provider for my brothers and sisters," said Henderson, who earned a master's degree this year at Coppin State University. "I learned early on that children need advocates."

Seeing children displaced by no fault of their own makes her want to help.

"The children in the shelters don't go home to a room, or to their toys," she said.

Recently, Henderson started a program that places boxes in the school system's administrative office where people donate toiletries that will be distributed to the shelters. The program stemmed from discussions about improving the children's self-esteem, she said.

"The kids in these shelters have nothing more than the clothes on their backs," she said. "This is my way of giving back to these people who have hit rock bottom."

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