June 28, 2023
As a unique literacy program, My Very Own Library helps students and their families build their own libraries and reading skills at home.
Written in collaboration with: Jim McLaughlin, Education Portfolio Manager and Sydney Radandt, Community Volunteerism Manager
In the spring for fourteen Milwaukee-area schools and three Waukesha schools, the energy shifts. The hallways buzz with annual excitement and the teachers must hide their own delight while refocusing their students’ attention back to their lessons. Parents at home prepare and make space. Every staff member and student in these schools can feel it coming. It is a special day of the year. It’s My Very Own Library Day.
The excitement is palpable within the schools participating in My Very Own Library, a unique literacy program dedicated to putting books into the hands of children in need. Supported by Scholastic Book Fairs, United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County distributed over 57,000 free books to 5,716 students (1,108 in Waukesha) in 2023. The books are paid for by United Way and our sponsors so that no child or their family needs to find the money to be able to find themselves lost in a book.
Throughout the day of this year’s book fair, students “shopped” for their free books with help from their teachers and volunteers who, like the students, looked forward to this day that brings so much joy. As students brought their books up to checkout stations, their excitement grew once they learned the prices of their books and that, no, they didn’t owe a penny for them.
The My Very Own Library program makes an even greater impact that the students don’t know about: 50% of “sales” during the day go right back to the participating schools in Scholastic Dollars. In 2023, $144,000 in Scholastic Dollars was generated from this program to help these seventeen schools make purchases for their classrooms and students – reducing the amount of money that teachers spend from their own pockets for their classrooms.
My Very Own Library offers books in both English and Spanish. We know that children read better when they have background knowledge on a topic; that knowledge can be built in any language to help reading fluency and to make connections as children grow. For children in Spanish-speaking households, having books offered at school in their native language also helps them to have better reading habits and abilities in English. And parents who have books in their native language are more likely to spend time reading aloud and with their children, which is important in fostering great reading habits and interest at home.
Most students have been getting My Very Own Library books since they were in second grade, and some students remember My Very Own Library in kindergarten. Students will start their own book clubs, and share books that either they’ve finished or didn’t like.
United Way also shares the excitement that students, teachers, and parents feel, and we know what a difference it makes to them. But don’t take our word for it. Read how students, teachers, and volunteers in some Milwaukee and Waukesha schools are impacted by this event, and what it means to them.
from students, teachers, and volunteers
Brown Street Academy
- When asked what he does with the books he takes home, second grader Christopher shouted, “I read ‘em!” He recalled, “When I was six, I read a book to my family in my bedroom. It went very well. It was a John Cena (the wrestler) book. They told me, ‘You really are a good reader, you should read fifth grade books.’ You can really get smarter by reading.”
- Fifth grader Cheyenne loves horror and adventure books, authors like R.L. Stein and Rick Riordan. “There were times I picked books that were a little too hard. One was called ‘No, David!’ about a boy who keeps getting into mischief and scolded.” But she held onto the hard books and, when ready, came back to them and finished. Cheyenne has plans to go to Harvard, “I have no choice but to read more because I need to get through middle school and then high school. I have to read because I'm trying to become a psychiatrist.”
- Volunteer Amy Rowell said, “I recognize the power associated with literacy. Not only is it a critical piece of the foundation for lifelong academic learning, it also opens up portals in the imagination as a way to dream, and sometimes escape. The entire experience took me back to childhood – I was right back in my elementary school library on the south side, picking my next adventure.” Reflecting further on her experience, she remarked, “It was a fun opportunity, and reminded me that teachers are incredible. I was exhausted by the time we left!”
Hawthorne Elementary (School District of Waukesha)
- It's hard for first grader Norah to choose which books to take home, “I really like Barbies and Trolls and L.O.L. Surprise Dolls,” she said. “I always want to get 3 or 10 of each!” This year, she chose a unicorn journal as one of her books to write secrets and notes, and she used it to write a letter to her friend Gustavo for his last day of school before his family flew to Florida for the summer.
- First grader Santi recalled climbing into his dad’s lap in their living room to read a book called "Who Would Win? Battle Royale” about which animal would be victorious in a fighting tournament (it was the crocodile).
- First grader Natalia's mom was so happy she picked out the book “Hair Love” and she reads it to her at bedtime.
- First grader Michael said, “I like sharks, and there's lots of different kinds. I saw them in this book – hammerhead, great white,” He also mentioned the prehistoric megalodon. “They grow to be 60 feet tall,” he added, a fact he had memorized.
Lincoln Avenue School
- Desi Aulet, bilingual Head Start teacher for three-year-olds, reflected on the students’ excitement, "They are jumping. ‘For real?!’ they say. ‘Where are the dinosaur books?’ some will say. Last year I had a kid take ALL of the dinosaur books. That made me so happy for him to be able to choose something specific. We know some [families] can't buy it themselves.”
- Eighth grader Daquan noted, “This is an entrusted program,” and explained that families know they can expect it each year. They work with their children to maximize reading time when it's My Very Own Library season. His mom has all his siblings fill out a book report form and turn it into their teacher to show the books were put to great use.
- Eighth grader Micah recalled that he had picked out an “Avengers” book several years ago, and this year he read that book out loud to his younger brother. Other students also expressed that they share their books with younger siblings.
- Eighth grader Jaylen said he likes that there is no pressure when choosing a book, “You can pick books that are hard! I like books with a lot of pages.” He loves Greek mythology and isn’t discouraged when books are too dense or too tough for him. This way, he doesn't have any buyer’s remorse when he takes healthy reading risks by seeking a challenge.
- Eighth grader Hailie said that having physical books is so refreshing, because a lot of kids want alternatives to screen time.
- Third grader Charles recounted how his mom read him “Pete the Cat” and the “Perfect Pizza Party” as a bedtime story during the fair week.
- Asked if it was hard for them to choose from the wide selection available, third grader Jhon said, “Nope! They had books about helicopters!”
- “That day of the book fair, all lesson plans go out the window,” laughed Mr. Dominic Boettcher, a special education teacher who has been at the school for the entirety of the program. He said the best learning they can get that day is to delve into their books and the ones their classmates chose.
Zablocki Community School
- Volunteer Caroline Bickerstaff has volunteered twice with My Very Own Library, “My daughter goes to Zablocki Community School, which is one of the schools that benefits from My Very Own Library. This is my second time. I love it when the kids have very specific requests for books, and I can help them find them. There was a girl in third grade who had already read most of the Harry Potter books, so I helped her find more magical books to add to her library.”
Want to learn more about My Very Own Library? Contact Jim McLaughlin at email@example.com
For more updates on United Way programs and initiatives, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIN.