On the first Saturday of 2023, kids packed The Harbor Center conference room at 204 Cedar Street in Cambridge, but not to watch movies or cartoons.
The youngsters, along with siblings, moms, dads, aunts and others, showed up to enjoy a Reading Social, a fun literacy and home library building gathering hosted by nonprofit Harvesting Hope Youth and Wellness, Inc.
The brainchild of Harvesting Hope Founder and CEO Omeaka Jackson back in 2017, the monthly event, held each first Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon in Cambridge (and second Saturday at the “old library” community center in Hurlock), fully lived up to its name.
The eager attendees got to pick from a plethora of books on display to read or be read to by a grownup of their choice, either around the roomy table or upstairs outside Harvesting Hope's office area, overlooking the water. They also were able to select a comfy kid-sized blanket to curl up with, some featuring fleecy dinosaur designs and poofy pompoms, plus a heathy snack to munch on.
The books and blankets turned into take-home keepsakes, along with the special craft each child created, a winter shadowbox scene inspired by the Ezra Jack Keats’ classic story, “The Snowy Day,” (the day's featured book). Kids used snowmen figures, colorful puffs, people, houses and evergreen tree bearing trucks, many affixed with kid-pleasing glow-in-the-dark glue.
Robin R. Stanley, five-year Harvesting Hope board member, and several Moving Dorchester Forward members, including the group's Community Engagement Coordinator Shay Lewis-Sisco, Rebecca Redmer and Nicole Higgins, helped make the morning a smoothly running success.
At the outset, several youngsters also stepped up to assist Jackson and Stanley with writing the mobile signs advising passersby and visitors that free books and blankets awaited inside.
From the start, a range of ages were represented; a steady stream continued arriving throughout the morning. While the reading initiative is intended for youngsters through age 12, no one will be turned away, according to Jackson.
Among the youngest participants was 2-year-old James Dixon IV, who enjoyed a Daniel Tiger story read by his aunt, Natalie Smallwood, accompanied by her 13-year-old son, Maces Lane Middle School student Zaccur Smallwood, who was occupied with a junior reading level story which captured his interest.
Zaccur, his mom proudly noted, had asked for and received 10 books for Christmas.
Right after wrapping up her regular Saturday morning Y swimming lesson, 6-year-old Aubri pulled out the Reading Social flyer from her school bookbag. Always on the lookout for enriching and fun weekend activities for her, mom Amira happily brought her right over.
While enjoying the chance to read, artistic Aubri, who her mother described as "never being without coloring pencils and notebook," was especially excited by the chance to create a craft.
Nicole Higgins' 6-year-old daughter Annie read a total of five books aloud as 16-year-old CSD student Jairyn Lewis attentively listened.
Lewis, Lewis-Sisco's son, is a Viking tight end and defensive player with the goal of a football career. But while helping 5th graders in the All4Love Mentoring Club coordinated by Young Life leaders Khalil Johnson and Lucas Thorpe, Lewis has learned just how rewarding it can be helping kids learn to read.
The home-schooled Kidd family was well represented by some of the morning's most avid readers including Ezra, 6, Michael, 12, and Nathaniel, who turns 14 in March.
Elenzor Camper, 7, practiced reading with his dad, also named Elenzor Camper. The senior Camper, who holds down a full-time security job at the hospital in Easton while working part-time at the Cambridge jail, was grateful to his employer who allowed him the extra time to bring his son to the event, which he'd been talking about all week, he added.
Another dad, David Cousins, also accompanying his family, asked if there were any books there especially for the grownups to read.
A lifelong reader, Cousins recalled relentlessly checking out multiple volumes of the R.L. Stine “Goosebumps” series as a youngster. While making sure his own children have Audible recorded book subscriptions, Cousins also wants them to experience the joy of holding a book in their hands. "It's so much better for them than always viewing a screen, either TV or Tablet," he remarked.
Paused during the pandemic lockdown for health and safety reasons, Jackson is pleased to get the Reading Socials back up and running, with current outreach expanding to include the town of Hurlock, which recently voted to help offer funding. She's also glad to work with organizations to bring the Reading Social activities to other locations and events.
In addition to Hurlock, Jackson is grateful to others providing support. Walmart was the first business providing Harvesting Hope with a grant to initiate the Reading Socials. Funding has also come from M&T Bank, The Todd Foundation, and the Elks Lodge No. 223 IBPOE. "Dorchester County Economic Development provided youth entrepreneurial books for young readers for our 2022 Youth Expo," Jackson added.
Jackson's interest in childhood literacy is both professional and personal. Her organization's holistic approach to wellness includes academic and employment mentoring. A lifelong book lover, her own childhood was defined by frequent, regular library visits.
She's also published children's books, including “Ann Meets Mrs. Jones,” a Foster Care book for children, and “Mommy, What's A Protest?,” which she was inspired to write following the international outcries over the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Jackson currently has several other books in the works, as well.
A practicing Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor-Supervisor, Jackson is a current Clinical Psychology Doctoral Student at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a Play Therapy Student, with over 21 years of experience working with youth and families in many different areas, and a passion for community services.
To volunteer, donate or for more information, contact email@example.com or visit harvestinghopeyouthandfamilywellness.org.