Originally Published in the Saratogian: December 25, 2011. Click here to read online.

By SUZANNA LOURIE

SARATOGA SPRINGS — A class of first-year Skidmore College students delivered boxes of holiday cheer to children staying at Albany Medical Center when they donated more than 1,100 books to the Ronald McDonald Family Room earlier this month.

“The most important thing I took away from this class is that it takes a community to raise a literate leader,” said senior Becky Bui, the peer-mentor assigned to work with students in Rebecca Johnson’s “Reading Minds,” a course about the history and power of literacy. “When we do things like the book drive, it benefits the entire community.”

Johnson taught Reading Minds as one of this year’s Scribner Seminars, a group of multi-disciplinary, discussion-based courses for new students as part of the college’s First Year Experience program.

Although the course includes reading to preschoolers as a service-learning component, Johnson added the book drive as another service project. It was based on a personal experience she had at Albany Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in the summer of 2010, when she had her twin boys.

“I would take my 20-month-old daughter to the Ronald McDonald Family Room to play and to read to, but I noticed there was only a small bookcase with some pretty old books to choose from,” Johnson said. “It stuck in my mind because the NICU shares the family room with patients staying at the children’s hospital, which has kids up to 17-years-old.”

The opportunity to make a difference arose when Johnson, an assistant psychology professor, was assigned to teach the Reading Minds, a seminar about the importance of literacy in today’s society, seminar to 16 first-year students this fall. The class set a goal, to collect enough books to help replace some of the older books in the Ronald McDonald Family Room and to expand the selection to include adolescent books.

They met and exceeded that goal, generating enough books for children at the hospital to take home when they leave.

“Reading is one of the things a child in the hospital can do so we do go through a lot of books” said Lori Emery, the operations manager for Ronald McDonald House Charities, with whom Johnson worked on the drive. “With the valuable contribution from Skidmore, we can offer not only the books in the family room, but there are enough for the kids to take them bedside and keep them to have a special book to hold onto.”

The book drive process started before Thanksgiving, when Johnson and her students sent a college-wide advisory to faculty, staff and students asking them to purchase a copy of a favorite childhood book to donate to the cause.

With more than half the semester’s coursework behind them, the students in Reading Minds had come to understand some of the seminar’s core concepts, including how the brain learns to read and the importance of literacy in Western society.

“I never realized how lucky I was when I was read to as a little kid,” student Emily Defiore said. “The class placed an emphasis on how essential it is to be read to when you’re young because it helps you grow up so much, both cognitively and emotionally. And it felt really good to be able to give more kids that opportunity with the books we raised at the book drive.”

The students organized the week-long drive, making posters and taking turns sitting at the collection table as they watched the books begin to pile up.

“It was really fun to sit at the table — when I was there the president of the college came and donated,” said Madison Dipman, another student. “It just made me feel really good, knowing you’re helping so many people.”

The end result was a total of 1,111 books, 1078 donated by college students, faculty, staff and other organizations and 33 purchased by the class from a $75 cash donation.

“We couldn’t be happier with the outcome,” Johnson said. “The members of the Skidmore community were so generous with their donations, from giving one book to five or even an entire bin of books.”

Once word of the book drive reached the Saratoga community, members of the Friends of the Saratoga Springs Public Library also pitched in by dropping off a carton of books. Other donations came from the preschool class at Greenberg Child Care Center on Skidmore’s campus and the college library.

“The donation will help us get through at least a year of providing children’s books at the hospital,” Emery said. “This is going to make a big difference for kids who I think are somewhat trapped in their situation, having to be there at the hospital when they wouldn’t choose to be. Books are a great way to help them get away from that, to escape for a moment. We’re very grateful.”