Dressed in purple T-shirts printed with "Express yourself," 11-year-old Victoria Oji and her sister Mercy, 13, manned a desk in the children's area of the White Marsh library. They helped children fill out applications for the library's popular reading program, suggested reading-related activities and demonstrated craft projects.
"I like helping other kids be creative about reading," said Mercy, sporting a pipe-cleaner headband she had made.
The sisters, who volunteer at their neighborhood library about four hours a week, are among more than 500 middle- and high-school students helping to make the annual Summer Reading Program at the Baltimore County Public Library a success. In the first three weeks of the program, designed to help children maintain and hone their reading skills, nearly 30,000 readers - 500 more than last year - have enrolled and more are signing up every day.
Library systems across the country pattern their program on a national model but tailor it to their communities. Each of the county's 17 branches has created a summer reading space with bright posters, attractive books and a crafts area, with projects that will change throughout the eight-week program.
"We design it to be fun, and we want children to use the library," said Marisa Conner, youth services coordinator for the Baltimore County system. "We are in their neighborhoods. Many of them can walk here. And, we know if children read in the summer, they won't lose their skills."
While working toward a 20-book goal, participants can substitute a library program, an audiobook or a number of activities to reach the prize-winning finish.
"I have read six books already and I just joined the program," said Mohammed Javed, 8, a White Marsh patron.
During their recent shift, Victoria, who likes "being with kids and being in the library," demonstrated flower art to 7-year-old Kayla Dicus. Mercy signed up the Davidson family.
"We do this program as a family," said Malinda Davidson, who brings her four kids to the library weekly. "I am a teacher, so this is all about reading."
The student volunteers are filling a need at every branch, Conner said.
"This is like their first job," she said. "They are not paid, but they are learning responsibility. Many of them have gone on to become library employees."
Dena Lorenzi said her 13-year-old daughter, Jane, is gaining invaluable experience volunteering at the Cockeysville branch.
"These kids went through a formal application process and it is introducing them to what it's like to have real job," she said. "They have responsibility. They have to dress properly and show up on time. They realize what it is like to have other people counting on them."
Jane does not mind getting up early to take the 9 a.m. shifts and wonders why she didn't sign up when she was younger.
"I am definitely learning how to handle people and I am learning patience, especially during the opening week," she said. "I see how it opens areas of interest for more children."
Emily Frey, 14, volunteering at the Essex branch for her third summer, started in the program to fulfill her volunteer service hours, but quickly found it a great way to socialize.
"It really helped me to open up to people," said Emily, who is home-schooled. "I have a lot of fun explaining crafts to children. And, here they can read what they want instead of following an assigned book list."
The program has shown Tanya Olyshko, 11, a first-time helper at the White Marsh branch, why children should read for fun.
"It is really important to keep up your skills," she said.
Only three weeks into the program, Zenobia Nichols, 13, and Tierra Lovelace, 12, have already encouraged many young patrons at the Rosedale library to join.
"I needed something to do this summer," Zenobia said. "The library is the place I go to the most and I like books."
She and Tierra helped a young mother enroll three of her children in the program.
"We even have stuff that a baby can do," Tierra said.
The promise of prizes piqued the children's interest. "Can you win a house?" asked Autumn Norfleet, 6, pointing to a picture of a house.
Not a house, but a two-hour private party in the branch's popular Storyville, Zenobia explained.