Spread the Word Nevada celebrates 10 years of increasing literacy among Las Vegas students

Veronica Cortez never owned a book before she was a second-grader at Squires Elementary School in North Las Vegas nearly 10 years ago.

Her family couldn’t afford them.

One day the school had an assembly and she was given a new tote bag and told she could have five books of her choosing.

“I didn’t really understand,” Cortez said. “I didn’t know that there were such things as taking books home.

“It changed my life because I enjoyed reading and I started doing better in school. It changed my family because I helped my parents learn English with those books.”

Those books were donated by Spread the Word Nevada, a nonprofit group that promotes literacy through book donations at low-income schools.

Spread the Word Nevada is in its 10th year and “adopted” its 24th school this month, Cortez Elementary School, 4245 E. Tonopah Ave.

Laurie Hartig, a former librarian for 13 years at McCaw Elementary School in Henderson and an elementary school teacher before that, started the program in February 2001.

“I knew that ownership of books was absolutely impactful in so many ways because I witnessed it,” Hartig said. “When I was a librarian and we had extra books, I’d always give them to the students. Years later, some kids told me it was their favorite book and the only one they’d ever owned. It gave me a very unscientific basis of the importance of books.”

Hartig approached Clark County School District Library Services with the idea of a book-distribution program similar to one she’d heard about in Massachusetts.

She explained the idea and thought Library Services would run with it and maybe she could help out a little.

“They said, ‘Why don’t you do it? And we’ll help,’ ” she said. “I’m never one to turn down a challenge. I opened the door, and it was time to step in. I grabbed every friend that I had, and we just decided this needed to be done. We carved out what we thought would work here in Southern Nevada. The momentum just caught, and little by little, we just kept building.”

When a school is adopted, each student receives a book bag and his choice of five books. Each subsequent month every student gets to pick another book.

Spread the Word Nevada collects, cleans and distributes new and gently used books around the Las Vegas Valley.

Schools are added one by one when funding becomes available. They distribute more than 25,000 books monthly, totaling more than 1.7 million books since the program’s inception, benefiting nearly 200,000 elementary-level kids.

Books mostly come from community book drives and donations, but Hartig said two community partners, Goodwill of Southern Nevada and NV Energy, have been especially generous. Goodwill donates unsold books, and NV Energy helps subsidize the purchase of new books.

The program originally served students in kindergarten through third grade. Kids wrote letters to Hartig expressing how they were sad and didn’t want to move to fourth grade because they wouldn’t be able to get any more books.

Hartig couldn’t stand to disappoint them, so she pooled resources and “we made sure the fourth- and fifth-graders would get them.”

Hartig and her staff of 12 look for schools with the most need, typically identifiable by the number of kids on free and reduced lunch programs.

Hartig would like to be able to reach every child if possible.

“Someday we would love to go statewide,” she said. “That would be my ultimate goal. We really would then Spread the Word Nevada. We’ll do our best locally until then.”

The first school adopted was Sunrise Acres Elementary School, 211 N. 28th St., followed by Squires Elementary School, 1312 E. Tonopah Ave.; Wynn Elementary School, 5655 Edna Ave.; and Robert Taylor Elementary School, 144 Westminster Way in Henderson.

Janet Dobry, principal of Robert Taylor , was principal of McCaw when Hartig was a librarian.

Hartig said Dobry was one of her mentors in education. It’s fair to say they are big fans of each other.

“(Laurie Hartig) is just exactly the person any principal would dream for,” Dobry said. “Talk about someone who was accepting of all students. Discipline was never an issue because kids were so engaged.

“She always did the extra things. She supported the staff so much. She was one of those people that helped so much behind the scenes that she never drew attention to.”

Hartig’s modesty is notorious among her peers. She feels uncomfortable taking credit for the program’s success, always deflecting praise to her friends and staff members.

In addition to the Kids to Kids book distribution program, Spread the Word has a family literacy initiative, Breakfast with Books, and a mentorship program, Books and Buddies.

Books and B uddies is a three-month commitment from community volunteers to work individually with students each week, offering tutoring to increase reading proficiency.

“I don’t know whose life is touched more,” said Hartig, “the child or the mentor. It’s amazing for the mentor to see the success of that child and to see that child beam when they come to see them.”

Hartig said they are always looking for more mentors .

Families are invited once a month at each school to attend Breakfast with Books, where family members can have breakfast, listen to a story reading and each take home a book .

Sherrie Gahn, principal at Whitney Elementary School, 5005 Keenan Ave., said the program is in high demand at her school.

“We get standing room only for the Breakfast with Books,” Gahn said. “A lot of times the parents like to pick the little kid books so their child can read to them. We get parents, kids, siblings and grandparents coming to it.”

Gahn said the program has dramatically helped students since the school was adopted six years ago.

“Part of the whole package is kids get really excited about reading,” Gahn said. “They can’t wait to get their new book every month. They go through them with such excitement. That’s what you want as an educator.

“We have a high transient rate, and a lot (of students) live in poverty. It’s crucial for kids to have something of their own. It gives them their own little library at home.”

Veronica Cortez, now a senior at Rancho High School, 1900 Searles Ave., did just that in elementary school.

Her bookshelf in her room became the neighborhood library. Kids would bring books over, and everyone traded them back and forth.

Cortez was very shy as a child, in part because her speech was stuttered. She used to read books aloud when she was alone to help curb the impediment.

Cortez also never had the opportunity to take vacations outside of the valley. For her, books were the only way to learn about different cultures and places .

Her fifth-grade teacher put gold stars on each student’s reading chart when they completed a book. By the end of the year, Cortez had read the most books in her class by far, and her teacher ran out of room for gold stars on her chart.

Cortez had too many books to fit in her room by the time she moved to middle school, so she donated many of them to the Las Vegas Library.

She kept her favorite book, though, Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”

Contact View education reporter Jeff Mosier at jmosier@viewnews.com or 224-5524.

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