She calls it a “secret garden.” Pam Allyn, Founder of Books for Boys at Children’s Village, likens the campus library to a secret garden. “It comes alive day after day for these kids.”
One crisp winter morning, Pam Allyn gave me a tour of the Children’s Village, a residential treatment program, about twenty miles outside New York City.
Pam Allyn, a literary expert, started the Books for Boys program, an innovative literary initiative, with this simple premise: Change the lives of children through books.
As Pam told me her story, it became clear that the kids she mentors face extraordinary challenges: “To be here you’ve had a difficult journey.”
Many kids are from families who could no longer care for them. Some have learning problems in school and never got the attention they needed. Many have been in foster homes or their parents have died. Most grew up living in poverty.
Pam’s full time job is at LitLife, a company she started that offers professional development, consulting, and coaching for teachers and others in the school community.
Through her work as a teaching consultant at the Children’s Village school, she also started volunteering her time there. She volunteers here a lot. As does her husband and her high school–aged daughter.
As we peered through the windows of the campus library (that also serves as a lunchroom), she told me about her experiences.
She noticed a few things when she first spent time at Children’s Village.
For one the library was a decrepit place; the books had been outdated or had little relevancy for the kids. She also noticed that the “cottages”—the residences at Children’s Village where the boys live and sleep—had no books to read.
This sparked several ideas.
She started to recruit more reading mentors.
She also turned the campus library into something more alive than it had been. She spruced it up with the help of Susan Meigs, Associate Director, and volunteers from the Amherst College Internship Program. They went to work, spending hours weeding through books, determining which ones would compel kids to come to the library, and scouting out new books. The goal was to make it into a fun, literary place where kids could go.
Pam also created libraries in each cottage, filling them with books that varied according to the boys’ interests and reading levels, so they could read when they were outside of school, too.
She also started a program to bring authors and illustrators to Children’s Village. Recently, Hill Harper, star of the television show C.S.I. New York and author of Letters to a Young Brother, came to read and talk to the boys.
She also sought donations. One Christmas, she wrote a letter to family and friends, asking if they would send even one book to support the volunteer program she had started.
The response was tremendous. In Pam’s words, “It turns out that people like being a part of something that is so concrete.” Even one book can make a difference in a child’s life. The support of family and friends enabled her to keep the project in motion.
Pam strives for what she calls “a culture of literacy” around Children’s Village. Getting kids excited about books and writing outside the classroom and ensuring that the people in their lives encourage it, too. These kids have always been outside a reading culture. To make them a part of it is an ongoing challenge. I asked her how she gets kids excited about books—and what about the emotional difficulties as well as the typical distractions they face, like television, video games, and the Internet?
To develop a joy of reading is definitely not about being tested or evaluated. Pam promotes the model used with teaching young kids, asking the simple question: “How do you come to love something?” Her theory is simple: “One does well what one loves to do.”
But creating a culture of literacy has not been an easy road. Although most of the staff at Children’s Village is supportive of her efforts, not everyone has been, especially in the beginning. In addition, many of the boys were resistant when Pam asked what kinds of books they’d like. Some simply replied “nothing.”
Gradually an excitement grew around activities such as read-alouds. Some kids even started making requests like “Oh, can you bring me a book on lizards?”
In some ways, the kids who end up at Children’s Village are the most resistant. It’s one of the reasons Pam loves them so much. “Many of these kids were living in terrible situations before they came here. Instead of tolerating it or being passive, they spoke up. To get to this place, you said no to the world around you.” That meant resisting the lack of attention in the huge public school or the foster homes where you were ignored—and told to sit in front of a TV.
Pam likens the boys’ tough resolve to the resistance fighters in France during World War II. “In many areas of the world, resistance is considered a positive thing. But in our society, resisting is not considered a good quality.” We’re programmed to obey, especially in school.
And this means that kids that act out are rarely given a chance, especially if they’re poor.
As she pointed out, a middle- or upper-class kid who rebels and stumbles has a safety net; someone is there to catch his fall. Or he gets put into a gifted program. But if you’re poor and feisty, you’re immediately labeled a troublemaker.
For kids living in poverty there are few safety nets. Whether it’s poor nutrition, uneven or poor education, no access to proper health care, drug addiction, absent parents, or parents working two jobs, the lack of stability means these kids are at a disadvantage from the get-go. She describes a twelve-year-old boy whom no one thought could read until he got to Children’s Village. Turns out he simply needed a pair of reading glasses.
Children’s Village offers them a safety net. Here the kids receive three meals a day, attend school, and get the support they need. As Pam says, it’s a place that “catches the child before he crashes.”
Pam will be given the Legacy of Service Award, presented at The Children’s Village Gala on May 3, 2007. It honors a person who has demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the work of The Children’s Village. After meeting her, extraordinary definitely comes to mind.
If you’d like to donate books to the Books for Boys program at Children’s Village, check out the registry at Huemanbooks.com