VALRICO — Books have always been a constant in Sarah Alzamora’s life.
“I’ve always been surrounded by books,” said the 14-year-old from Valrico. “I took them for granted. I could always check out books at my school library or the county library and my parents were always buying me books.”
Surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of reading materials, Alzamora was surprised to learn that not all children have easy access to books.
For eight years, her church, St. Andrew’s UMC, Brandon, has provided reading tutors and financial support to migrant farmworkers’ children who attend Dover Elementary School, located in a rural, low-income community in Hillsborough County.
Seventy-five percent of the student body is made up of Hispanic children whose parents earn a living traveling from state to state, picking tomatoes, strawberries and other field crops on farms.
Because most of these children come from non-English-speaking environments and live a transient lifestyle that necessitates changing schools frequently, they often fall behind in reading skills.
Their ability to learn to read is further hampered by a lack of books. Most children of migrant farmworkers live in poverty and are fortunate to own a single book, Alzamora said.
She and fellow Girl Scout Tatum Phillips were surprised to learn that books were so rare in the migrant community.
“It was something that was hard to grasp,” said Phillips, 14. “There are children out there that just don’t have access to books.”
So the teens, members of Girl Scout Troop 1077, which meets at St. Andrew’s, decided to launch a book drive for the migrant children as part of their Girl Scout Silver Award project.
They created and handed out fliers at the church announcing their intention to collect children’s books for Dover Elementary and then set out collection boxes.
“If they had a lot of books to donate, we went to their houses and collected them,” Phillips said.
The teens were hoping to collect at least 300 books. To their surprise,donations totaled 1,563 books.
“We didn’t expect so many,” Alzamora said. “We were so proud when we went to the school to present them. They were so grateful. It was very touching.”
Nancy Plate, who heads the tutoring ministry at St. Andrew’s, was equally surprised when she heard the total.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We had enough books to give to the teachers, place in the school library and send home with the kids.”
“We are so thankful for all the members of the church who helped us and for the people at Dover Elementary for being so welcoming to us,” Alzamora said. “It was so touching to see the kids’ excitement about getting a book.”
In addition to collecting books for the school, Alzamora and Phillips created an educational video emphasizing the importance of reading.
“We were surprised to find out how many people don’t know how to read,” Phillips said. “And statistics show that kids who can’t read fluently by the fourth grade are more likely to drop out of school.”
The teens, who attend the International Baccalaureate program at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, plan to undertake more literacy programs through their school and their Scout troop.
-- D'Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in the Tampa area.