Friday, December 31, 2010

Delivery Day at Fairview Elementary!

For five weeks beginning Oct. 25, I held a giveaway to help a Denver area elementary school in need that I called, The Great Library Giveaway.

I'd set aside 300 books from reviewing for the contest, knowing that many schools in the area were facing budget cuts and could use books to fill a shelf or two in their libraries.

In my heart, I imagined the winning school being a place where the books would mean the most, where resources are sparse, life doesn't come easily and books are treasured.

But after the contest began, I realized that the giveaway might not reach the very people I'd most wanted to help.

Less affluent communities wouldn't have easy access to computers and the Internet, and thus could be at a significant disadvantage entering the contest.

What I didn't anticipate was the tenacity and spirit of Fairview Elementary School, a fiercely proud little school in Denver's most impoverished neighborhood.

In a week's time, Fairview came up from behind and not only won the contest, but by more than 50 votes.

So worried they'd lose their lead against the other 13 schools that entered, the staff, volunteers, families and friends at the school kept voting even after their win seemed secure.

And as I discovered while delivering the books a week after Thanksgiving, this is a school that doesn't take anything for granted.

"When there is an opportunity to help this school, I can't justify passing it up," said Sara Hefner, a first year teacher at Fairview who rallied her school to win.

Surrounded by poverty, 86-year-old Fairview Elementary has been an oasis of hope for families with very little.

After Denver's school board considered closing Fairview in the early 1990s, the school has learned to make do in creative ways.

When the school needed to be painted, parents showed up to help, even though some had never held a paintbrush. When Sara needed books for her preschool classroom, she appealed for donations on

"Our teachers are truly invested in helping students achieve their fullest potential," said Kim Turner, an adult second language teacher at Fairview, adding that families may not have much but they give everything they can. "When we ask them to bring food, or help out, the answer is always 'yes.'"
Set between one of Denver's most distressed public housing projects, where most of the students live, and the nonprofit Decatur Place apartment building, where single parent families transition out of homelessness, Fairview couldn't be in a tougher spot.

The neighborhood around the school, Sun Valley, is the state's poorest, with at least 1,300 people living on public assistance or Social Security. But it's also rich in diversity, with a large population of Somalian refugees from Nairobi, Kenya,  -- and rich in hope.

"We come to Fairview because of the children," said Judy Douglass, who along with Dianne Diehl, volunteers at Fairview through Denver Urban Garden's Connecting Generations, a group of adults who mentor kids. "We have learned to love these children who live so bravely in poverty."
Judy and Dianne volunteer twice a week as librarians because the school is too small to qualify for funds for a librarian, and the library, a second-floor room with big windows that look out on an abandoned lot, has bigger gaps on the shelves than spaces filled with books.

"These kids have challenges that we can't imagine as middle class citizens," Judy said. "They teach us the value of spirit, they show us their unconditional love, they appreciate any little hug or word of encouragement. They are strong, resilient, and they love to see -- through books -- the world outside of the housing project where they live."

Their courage has inspired staff to fight for every opportunity to help them and the giveaway effort is just one example of the staff's tenacity.

Over the last two weeks of the contest, preschool teacher Sara became a hero among her coworkers, working overtime to encourage staff to vote, and contacting family and friends as far away as Australia to cast their vote.

As enthusiasm spread across the Web, it spurred a touching act of kindness by illustrator Vic Juhasz (D is for Democracy and Z is for Zeus) and his wife, Terri Cole, whose niece attends Fairview.

On the eve of leaving for Afghanistan with the USO to sketch U.S. troops for a column in Golf Magazine, Juhasz called his publisher Sleeping Bear Press and requested a box of new books be donated to Fairview whether they won or not.

Even with a 55-point lead the last night of the contest, Sara kept checking vote tallies on the blog into the wee hours of the night for fear another school would pass up Fairview.

Like all teachers at Fairview, she takes her job beyond the classroom, visiting her students and their families at their homes so she can better appreciate the struggles they go through.

"It is amazing to have a family open up to you and explain their hardships and what would make their lives that much better," she said. "…I admire how hard my parents work for me with the little bit they have."

Though many parents don't have money to buy books or have transportation to drive to a public library two miles away, they read what they can to their children and visit a bookmobile that comes twice a week.

"The students in our school are poor, but they and their families are working hard to build better lives," Kim said. "Reading is the key and having new books to choose from opens more avenues for all of our families."

Small for a public school, the student population at Fairview shifts between 220 and 250 students, as families move in and out of homelessness, according to Don Diehl, a fifth grade teacher at Fairview and the son of Dianne, adding that almost every student is on a free or reduced lunch.

Don's so deeply invested in the kids, he doesn't stop working when the school year ends. In 2004, he started a community garden across from the school with Denver Urban Gardens. Together they hire students from the neighborhood to grow organic food, prepare healthy recipes and sell the harvest at a youth farmer's market

This is a school of remarkable efforts. Everything the staff do, they do with their hearts, as I discovered the day I delivered the books.

Driving up in my red SUV, the back seats folded down so that I could fit 12 boxes of books in the back, I felt like I'd hitched up Santa's sleigh.

I expected to drop off the books, meet the principal Norma Giron and Sara, then say goodbye. But as I carried the last box of books into what I thought was a storage room, I discovered I was walking into a gym filled with students and staff.

Students in preschool through fifth grade were sitting cross-legged on the floor with their teachers nearby and the principal waiting to introduce me.

Fairview was having an assembly to thank Sara and me, and to celebrate the books they'd won. What a lovely school.

Lined up along the side of the gym, the boxes of books looked meager in such a big place and I wished I had had more to give, but to these kids who have very little and the faculty who seem more like a family than staff, they were very appreciated.

Sara and I were given flowers, and I was asked to read a book to the school. I felt very humbled as I reached into one of the boxes and pulled out Tad Hills's How Rocket Learned to Read, and began to read aloud. Afterward, teachers and students brought me stacks of letters and cards thanking me for the books.

"The budget constraints on a teacher and the DPS (Denver Public School) system are beyond words," said Debbie Fauskee, a paraprofessional who works in Sara's class at Fairview. "We never have enough money for books. I often shop by the thrift stores on Saturdays with my own money to get books for the classroom."

"…What a sight it would be to have our library shelves full of books someday."

To help Fairview get closer to that dream, Where the Best Books Are! is adopting Fairview in 2011 as its first-ever "School in Need." Extra books will be dropped by through the year in hopes of shrinking the gaps on shelves.

As Sara put it, when there's an opportunity to help this school, you just can't pass it up.

For more about Sun Valley, read columnist Tina Griego's series here in the Denver Post. Griego talks about the neighborhood's history and future.

A special thank you to all the wonderful children's book publishers that send books for review to my blog and make these donations possible!

1 comment:

  1. You did a really awesome thing, helping out this school. Thanks for sharing the pictures.