In the summer of 2019, hundreds of families gathered each week in local parks for family-friendly literacy events. Special guests read stories aloud, local ice cream and food vendors gave away summer treats, and every child who attended received a brand new, age-appropriate book each week. By all accounts, Storytime in the Park was a huge success.
The idea for Storytime in the Park came many years earlier from Barbara Lubic, a professor at Grand Valley State University. She and her friend Barbara Bush—a local ice cream shop owner—wanted to do something to celebrate the parks and the community in the summer. They decided to give away books and ice cream at weekly summer gatherings in Garfield Park. What began with 50 attendees 11 years ago has turned into something far greater.
It was Barb’s connection with Mike Nassar, Director of the Community Literacy Initiative at the Literacy Center of West Michigan, that grew Storytime in the Park to what it was in the summer of 2019. In his position as a convener of literacy providers in the community, Mike brought togeter partners in March 2019 to discuss an expansion of Barb’s original event. The partners included the Literacy Center, Grand Valley State University, Read GR, Westside Collaborative, Grand Rapids Public Library, and the City of Grand Rapids. The group became Storytime GR, spearheaded by Read GR Director, Becca Walsh-Wolf.
“When you bring the partners together and sit in a room, we talk about goals, activities, and measurements, I’ve just been so impressed by the kind of work that gets done when you bring different people to the table,” Mike reflects.
Barb agrees, “Everybody has their foot in a different part of the community and has a different understanding, and that’s been the beauty of our five organizations coming together.”
With the tremendous success of Storytime in the Park in 2019, the team was eager to open more park locations in the summer of 2020. Unfortunately, like many things, COVID-19 halted those original plans. Storytime GR had to find a way, as Barb says, to “pivot.”
The team came up with a creative new solution. Through a lot of connections, and some ingenuity, Becca was able to arrange for book distributions to take place during food distributions around Grand Rapids. Places like the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and LincUp hosted the Storytime GR team alongside the food providers. Each partner organization, including the Literacy Center, sent teams of volunteers to help distribute close to 30,000 books this summer.
In addition, and in partnership with Rockford Construction, Storytime GR was able to place free Book Pantry units across Grand Rapids, providing free children’s books to children in local neighborhoods. ReadGR Director, Becca Walsh-Wolfe, offered the idea to Storytime as she explains, “I was concerned with lack of easy access to books for Grand Rapids area children, and came up with the Book Pantries as a way to offer kids free books to own, of their own choosing. Books in the home is the #1 indicator of educational success. Books serve as comfort, teacher, and friend at a time when kids are isolated and bored.” Rockford Construction donated the materials for the pantries as well as constructed and installed them in the varying locations. The free book pantries will remain a permanent part of Storytime GR.
Mike is proud of the Literacy Center’s role in bringing partners together, serving the same goal. “It’s like a group of people putting up a barn. One can’t put up a barn. Two struggle. But if you have a group of people it goes up pretty easily.”
Reflecting on how Storytime in the Park started, Barb said, “It is amazing that an idea that you have can have such an impact on a community. One person, two people, a conversation, can truly make an impact.” Mike echoes this value of bringi
ng together partners to address literacy, “They are excited about what we bring. We get excited about what they bring. It keeps an energy going because you feel like you’re being impactful.”
Book distributions will continue through October 21, and even though summer is almost gone, Storytime in the Park will be taking place during the month of September. Four parks will take turns hosting Storytime in the Park and three slots reaching a maximum capacity of 40 people will be available each night. Storytime in the Park looks forward to seeing you there!