'10,000 books amassed for giant giveaway'

Last modified: 4/2/2012 12:00:00 AM
Five years ago, Donna Ciocca spent her days teaching middle school science and her nights thinking of ways to get books to kids who need them.

This year, she has 10,000 books to give to students at three simultaneous events.

What started as a day giving away a few hundred books in Northfield has turned into a $10,000 annual celebration of literacy in Penacook, Nashua and Littleton on April 14.

But you wouldn't know the event has exploded from watching the volunteers at work.

These days, the central office is a musty basement. There's no coffee pot station, no snacks. There's not even enough chairs for all the volunteers or for Ciocca. Not that she needs one.

Ciocca, president of the Granite State Council of the International Reading Association, (among about a dozen other titles, volunteer positions, and post-retirement jobs) doesn't stop moving or talking or laughing. She is quick to joke and exaggerate and mock herself.

She likened the festival to a wedding: "Nobody else knows what's supposed to be there or how it runs. It just does. If the bridesmaid's dress is held up underneath with duct tape, nobody knows. It's just like that."

Then she burst into laughter.

Ciocca herself is part of what sold Steve Duprey on the festival's potential for success. She taught his sons when they were in school, and she's turned to him over the years for donations and advice.

"The draw for me, other than the optimistic buoyant personality of Donna, is that she has put this together with typical Yankee ingenuity," he said.

Ciocca's Yankee ingenuity is actually quite atypical, being Missouri born and bred.

Her mother did instill in her a drive, a requirement, to improve the world around her, though.

"She would tell us, 'If you're not doing something to improve the world, why are you here?' " Ciocca said.

About becoming a teacher she says, "Back then we didn't have much choice." But she seemed to relish memories of teaching, especially the ways she encouraged a love of reading in her students.

She has taught every grade from kindergarten to eighth, but when she was teaching middle school, she kept a basket of children's picture books in the room. When the students went through it, if they found one they remembered and loved, she'd let them stop class to read it together.

"Anybody can teach a kid to read. What I want is for them to be lifelong readers. To love it," she said, and that means having a book of their own.

"If you have a library book, well, you have to be careful with it. Kids need to fall in love with that book, chew it up and mull it over, carry it around, sleep with it," she said.

Five years ago, preparing for the first festival, Ciocca didn't know whether the event would improve the world or ruin her life.

She had figured out that buying books on remainder lists from publishers could mean buying books for a dollar or less each. She had figured out that she and a cadre of volunteers could drive around and pick up a few thousand books in their own cars, keep them in their own basements, print stickers with the names of the businesses that donated, and then deliver them to Northfield, for the festival morning.

She figured all of that out on the fly, as they went.

"We wrestled with everything that first year," she said.

Even when the day came, her husband, Mark Ciocca, wasn't sure it would work. Would the duct tape hold that bridesmaid's dress in place, or would the whole show fall apart?

It was a beautiful April Saturday morning. Little Leagues around the region were just gearing up.

Mark and the off-duty police officer who were assigned to direct cars in the parking lot looked at each other and smiled, assuming they had an easy morning ahead of them.

"Then," he said, "the cars started coming, and coming, and coming, and coming."

The officer had to call for backup so someone could direct cars at the nearby middle school. Ciocca even enlisted bus drivers to shuttle families to and from the high school several miles away.

Since then, it's only gotten bigger. Ciocca has persuaded companies like McDonald's and Stonyfield Farm to donate healthy snacks and bottled water. Wildlife organizations set up live animal displays in a room where kids can pick up a book on the same topic.

And every last inch of it is free. Every dollar given to the literacy event buys books, so there are none left over for extra chairs, or niceties like coffee.

Last year, so many people turned out that Ciocca had to go back into storage to get more books.

This year, the books and the petting zoo and the local celebrity appearances will come together April 14, at three locations: Merrimack Valley Middle High School, Nashua South and Littleton High School.

With the deadline looming, Ciocca chirped, "It's all coming together. It's actually going to happen."

Last-minute tasks include gathering donations and printing stickers to put on the books, telling the families which local businesses provided funding. There's no donation too small, Ciocca said, and every $1 will buy a book and a sticker.

People ask Duprey to donate to causes all year. This is one check he enjoys writing, he said.

"There's no administrative overhead, no salaries, no offices. It is just 10,000 books to kids. Really, wow," he said.

"It's an opportunity to get books in the hands of kids who might not otherwise get them. In doing so we can turn some below-average readers into good readers and good readers into great readers. What's not to like about that?"

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)


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