I have been running to catch up with my own life for what seems like a very long time. Just ask my husband. My life has been exceptionally chaotic lately, to the point that my volunteer hours as a Project Armchair reader have suffered. And, oh how I have missed it. Nothing feels quite right when I don’t have time to do the thing I love best.
I pulled into the parking lot of a local homeless shelter yesterday and smiled. Finally! I was armed with a wide array of upper-elementary books. Books the older boys of the after-school program had requested the last time I read there. (SIDE NOTE: Shout out to their teachers who helped them discover their own “reading territories” - books that kids are naturally drawn to).
It was sweetly calm when I entered the large room where the kids spend time until parents can pick them up. There were kids at long table working on puzzles or crafts. Others lounged in comfortable chairs. The workers looked in my direction and smiled warmly.
As familiar young faces ran to greet me, I hugged each one that stretched out arms for affection. Others stood shyly at the perimeter and waited. They soon directed their attention to my rolling crate. The one filled with what they were REALLY excited about… my books. A tall kid just to my right asked without preamble, “Do you have any Dog Man books?” “As a matter of fact, I do,” I responded with a broad smile. “But you’ll have to wait your turn.” His shoulders slumped a little, but he followed me dutifully across the room.
I (vainly) attempted to have the children take turns choosing a book and sitting beside me while I read their choice to them. But no matter how many times I asked them to stand back and wait their turn, they continued to crowd around the rolling treasure box of coveted books and to search longingly for the perfect choice. I finally gave up shooing them off and had them sit around me on the floor as I read every book to every child. They were like hungry little birds, absorbing every word and feasting on the bright illustrations. They laughed at funny pictures and nodding knowingly at familiar connections.
The Dog Man fan eventually had his turn to choose one of several from the series. He gratefully accepted his treasure and disappeared. Soon another middle school-aged boy appeared and asked for a book. Then another. Apparently, word travels fast where graphic novels are concerned. I packed up the remaining books, put on my coat and turned to leave. Then my heart constricted and melted into a gooey mass. Lounging on chairs and stretched across the sofa were boys in big bodies devouring their new books. They were aware of nothing around them. They were utterly and contentedly lost in their new books.
This is what it is all about.
This is what the volunteers of Project Armchair have set at their primary goal. Kids in crisis finding a moment’s reprieve from challenging circumstances through the pages of a really good book.
In my doctoral studies, I came across the story of a young woman who spent most of her growing up years in transience. Homeless shelters were a natural part of her environment. She longed to escape from the cycle of poverty and was naturally intelligent. She recounted in an interview how she would read any and everything that she could get her hands on, including cereal boxes, and old copies of Readers Digest. Books, she claimed, were her escape.
I witnessed echoes of that yesterday. Shelters are not beautiful places to live. Life is hard when you are transient. I mean HARD. Fear, stress, and chaos are the norm. If Dog Man can relieve a little of that for a few brief moments, then I am a happy camper.
Oh, and Khadijah Williams? The girl who read cereal boxes when there was nothing else available? She ended up at Harvard. You can read more about this inspiring young woman here: