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Borrowing books from the school library is a thing of the past for many Philadelphia pubic school students these days, but one nonprofit organization is hoping to change that.

Penn Medicine awarded a $1,200 grant last month to the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, or WePAC, a nonprofit that staffs libraries on a volunteer basis. Thanks to the grant, West Philadelphia’s Samuel Powel Elementary School will have a larger library collection to borrow from.

Recent budget constraints make it difficult for district schools to employ librarians, but WePAC is making attempts at reversing that grim reality. About 125 WePAC volunteers work a few days a week to staff 12 elementary school libraries in the West and Southwest sections of the city.

A nurse in the trauma department at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Janet McMaster, applied on behalf of WePAC for a Penn CAREs grant, which provides funding to projects and organizations where employees of the hospital donate their time.

While the direct connection between books and healthcare is not obvious at first, McMaster situated reading with the motivation to continue pursuing education and outcomes later in life.

“If you can get kids motivated to read, they are less likely to drop out and become a trauma patient,” she said.

WePAC works to renovate the district’s unstaffed libraries before opening them again. Last summer, students from PennCORP, a pre-freshman orientation program at Penn, helped WePAC unpack, shelve and categorize about 40 boxes of books for the Heston Elementary school library.

Budget issues for the School District of Philadelphia over the past few years have forced almost all of the professional librarians employed by the district to be laid off. Only five employees on the district’s SD Employee Information sheet, published this summer as public data, were listed with titles related to library jobs.

Volunteers with WePAC work with classes from kindergarten  to 4th grade in the school libraries, and one school until 5th grade, for about 30-45 minutes once a week. They read aloud to the students and help them check out books for a week at a time, Deputy Executive Director Mica Navarro Lopez explained.

“They get to come in and choose the books themselves, and that’s really powerful,” Navarro Lopez said.

McMaster explained that it is a fair amount of work to use a library without a computerized library catalog. Volunteers check books out by hand, and students carry “library card” index cards with stickers indicating their rentals. “Many of these kids have never borrowed books before,” she said. “You should see how excited they get.”

Many of the books at Powel’s library are also outdated, but McMaster said that doesn’t curb student enthusiasm. “The books are old, but it doesn’t matter — kids will still read old books,” she said.

However, the grant money will work on updating the collection with a new set of books related to science and technology subjects and another set of about 60 books geared specifically toward black  students.

Lea Elementary’s library was reopened by WePAC, but only worked with students in the lower grades, leaving the older students without library access. Penn librarian Ancil George serves as the Community Outreach Librarian, a position created by Penn Libraries last spring to work on establishing library access for all the students at Lea and and getting Penn students and community members involved.

WePAC has been around since 2004, but in 2009 it decided to focus on literacy in schools. They are funded through donations from individuals, private foundations and corporate sponsors and that money goes directly to maintaining the libraries, like creating wish list of books they hope can be added to the libraries. The books they choose are intended “to meet kids’ needs, be relevant and be really interesting to them,” Navarro Lopez said.

Recently, WePAC also received a $10,000 LEAP grant from BetterWorldBooks that will help fund another local school library, expected to open in January of 2015.

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