The rain fell so hard it turned white on the pavement on Dec. 3 as dozens of children and their parents still lined up at the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center in the Upper West Side for a chance to pocket one of the 3,000 books collected by a coalition of local groups for needy kids.
Parents held their dripping umbrella’s in one hand, and the hands of their children in the other, while their kids jostled, laughed, and pointed to the boxes of books beyond where they stood.
The Free Children’s Book Fair, held at the Marlene Meyerson JCC and organized by the Center alongside City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, D3 Open Arms–a local group organized to help provide for asylum-seekers in the district–the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and Bank Street School for Children.
“The intent for this was to get as many gently used and brand-new books out to our ‘New New Yorkers,’ formerly known as refugees and migrants, as possible,” said Jay Charriez, Community Engagement Manager at the Joseph Stern Center for Social Responsibility at the JCC. “Books generally can’t leave the school, and it’s important to have kids who don’t have access to public libraries, or are new here, get books free of charge.”
To do this, the JCC solicited donations from neighbors in the Upper West Side as part of a ‘Book Drive,’ and, supported by a donation from the Church of Latter-Day Saints, purchased books from Word Up, an independent Spanish-language bookstore in Washington Heights, and from other foreign-language bookstores, with a focus on Russian, Hebrew, and French. Thousands of books were sourced or purchased, filling donation rooms literally to the ceiling, said Charriez. Now they waited in wooden crates, in bags behind the counters, or in the hands of the kids who flipped excitedly through them.
To get the word out to migrant families, the JCC partnered with D3 Open Arms, a local organization founded by parents from the school district to help migrant families get what they need. “Asylum seekers have a really unique set of needs. They are in hotel rooms, they don’t have kitchens, they don’t get a lot of benefits,” said Gina Cirrito, one of the organizations’ founders. “We try to help take the burden of the schools and pair them with places that want to help but don’t know how.”
Alongside the book fair, D3 Open Arms has organized clothing and food drives for asylum seekers. The organization used the schools and other channels to spread the word for the book fair. Yet the majority of attendants were long-standing neighborhood residents, local families, mostly white, who were already involved with the JCC or could be reached through its channels.
Cirrito, her co-founder Erica Depiero, and many volunteers recognized the challenge. “This is an experiment,” said Depiero, co-founder of D3 Open Arms. “We promoted this through a lot of channels to get to families who are living in contemporary housing, but, again, is this a priority on their list? How do they get here? Do they use a Metro swipe to go get books, or to go get food?”
Nonetheless, over the course of the afternoon, the stacks emptied as nearby chairs filled with children absorbed in the books that they flipped, slowly through, on their laps. Naveed H
asan, an advocate for migrant students, and a parent at P.S. 145, came first as an organizer, but second as a father. His kids sat nearby as we spoke, reading the Dog Man books that they had come to find. “As long as they’re reading,” he said.
Though not as many migrant families came as hoped, organizers were “thrilled by how it went and how many kids came,” said Sam Goldsmith, Gale Brewer’s Communications Director. Out of some 3,000 donated, 1,700 were distributed, and the remaining 1,300 were awaiting distribution by Open Arms to the asylum shelters, non-profits, and schools where they would be most needed.