Kids helping newfound friends
Students at St. Bernard Unified School in New Orleans can't brag about their library.
Their book collection is torn, muddy and yellow and covered in filth.
The school, one of the few operating in the area, was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and is still struggling to come up with books, supplies and other materials for the 50-plus students in each packed classroom.
"Most of (the St. Bernard students) said that if they had $100, they would give it away to kids that are still living in tents," said Sara North, a University of Illinois student and student-teacher at Wiley Elementary School in Urbana. "They've all given all that they can to help. ... There's no resources left to pull from."
This Friday, North and her fourth-graders at Wiley plan to change that.
They are teaming up with Pages For All Ages bookstore in Savoy to fill that Louisiana library with lots of new books, as well as supplies, clothes and other items requested by St. Bernard students.
To that end, sections of Pages For All Ages will be transformed.
Starting at 7 p.m., students like 10-year-old Brittany Webb will lead tours of the store to recommend books people can donate to St. Bernard.
Other students will sell homemade pralines, "which are very good – I've tried them," recommends Webb.
Raffle tickets will be available for $1 each or six tickets for $5. These are already on sale in the store.
Student Norrlyn Allen, 10, will serve as auctioneer, selling off Mardi Gras-style floats the students made.
"I've been practicing and I've watched movies that had auctioning," he said. Then he showed off his fast-talking technique, pretending to sell an item to "the woman in the back."
One float has an Illini theme and is stocked with orange and blue items donated by Wal-Mart in Savoy.
The second has a summer reading theme and is covered in books donated by Pages for All Ages.
"This really seemed like a good cause, and there's nothing that any of us like better than reading," said Pages for All Ages manager Robin Hayden. "It would be pretty expensive if they had to pay to build their library from scratch."
Allen is glad to contribute. "I'm basically doing it for the kids in New Orleans," he said, "to raise money for them."
This wasn't the first, and won't be the last, time the class works with St. Bernard.
For more than a month, North's class – regularly taught by Evelyn Walton – has been teleconferencing with a St. Bernard fourth-grade classroom, swapping stories and learning about each other's environment. "I'd like to learn more about them," Webb said, "what they've done with their life, what they want to do when they grow up."
North hopes the students find healing through the project, called Hope Floats.
"This project has also given Katrina's kids a voice," North said. "Kids are able to share each other's burdens that way."
In addition, the Wiley class has been learning about New Orleans weather, geography, food and culture. The project has absorbed the students so much that, with extra credit, they scored an average of 103 percent on their last test on the subject.
North, for one, is amazed at the children's enthusiasm and charitable drive for the project.
"I have been so impressed with how the kids have taken ownership," she said. "They want to do all that they can to help their newfound friends."