ROCK HILL — The charity organization Book Aid International has set up tents with books in rural communities of sub-Saharan African and the Middle East to encourage literacy and reading for leisure.
"They bring in large, traveling tents and set them up in rural areas," explained Matthew Sohner, AmeriCorps VISTA worker at Winthrop University. "People walk for miles to come in and spend the day reading books with the children, and they take books home. It's an opportunity to increase literacy in an area that really doesn't have a structured library available in every community."
Sohner teamed with Winthrop's Center for Career & Civic Engagement and University College to bring a piece of that to Rock Hill. AmericaCorps VISTA is a national service organization.
This past semester, nearly 1,000 first-year students in Winthrop's introductory class Academy 101 worked on a community service project modeled after Book Aid International. Called "The Reading Tent Project," it's a five-year initiative that follows projects outlined in the university's Global Learning Initiative.
During the first semester of the initiative, students spent weeks raising money and collecting books. Sohner estimated they collected more than 6,000 books and raised $2,200 in cash.
But the highlight came after the collection, when university students spent an hour on Friday afternoons for seven weeks at five local schools, the Emmett Scott Recreation Center and the Children's Attention Home, reading to young children and playing literacy-related games with them.
In the past, Academy 101 students have collected canned goods for local food pantries. But with this project, Sohner hoped the students would understand the importance of childhood literacy.
"Something I stressed to our peer mentors, especially for our first-generation students, is everyone who is at this university has been given a gift," he said. "That gift is education. They made it to high school and have progressed to college, and all of them will graduate with a degree. This is their chance to give back and pay forward what they have been given."
The response from the first-year students was "overwhelming," he said. Athletic training major Jordan White called it a "heart-warming experience."
"I was nervous because I have never really dealt with kids before," she said. "The whole raising the money and collecting books process was interesting."
White remembers one little girl who at first was so scared to see all of the college students that she burst into tears.
"I grabbed her hand and talked to her, and then she was fine," White said.
Carley Hicks, a photography major, had another positive experience with a young boy who talked about how much he loved vegetables.
"I really didn't know what to expect," she said. "But as we started helping and donating, I was like OK, and once we got [to the schools], it was an awesome experience. They were so excited."
Hicks has already begun looking at other community service projects she can help with.
"It feels good to give back," she said.
Children in the community felt the same, Sohner assured them. In fact, during the university students' fall break, they missed one of their Fridays with the school kids. The kids were so distraught that they started crying.
"It was very successful, and we had a lot of kids saying, I want grow to up and be this," he said. "It encouraged them to stay in school."
Nicole E. Smith 803-329-4068