A little girl with long dark hair was intently inspecting a table of books. The table was laden with titles upon titles of brand new books that Storybook Christmas donated. The other children around her grabbed their backpacks and sprinted toward the table of refreshments, while the girl remained very serious. A stoic expression gripped her lips as she focused on picking the perfect story. Her hands landed on a bright yellow book labeled “Curious George.”
A teacher bent down and said, “Let me hold your book for you, and you go get cookies and a drink, and we’ll read it to you.”
Her dark eyes looked up as she clutched the yellow book tightly over her heart. She shook her head and said, “No, this is my very first-est book.”
Cofounder of Waco’s Storybook Christmas, Ann Roznovsky, remembers this moment clearly as it was part of the first proof she received that the organization she founded would succeed. Now the organization celebrates it’s 25th year of collecting books for poverty stricken students and they report that they have provided 390,561 books to schools all over McLennan County. Currently they are working hard to prepare the estimated 20,000 books they will hand out this holiday season.
“We know that we will go over the 400,000 mark this December when we give them [the books] out, we are really excited about that milestone in our 25th year,” Roznovsky said, “In this small of a county, that really is a lot of books.”
Storybook Christmas started in Waco in 1990. Roznovsky worked as the marketing director of the Waco Tribune Herald. Every year she would attend the marketing directors’ annual conference for newspapers where an award would be given to the newspaper project that best served their community. That year the award was given to the Lexington Herald newspaper, in Lexington, Ky., for a project they called Storybook Christmas. The goal was to provide children who didn’t have ready access to books, a brand new book that they could call their own. Roznovsky took notes, and brought the idea back to her publisher at the Waco Trib, Randy Preddy.
“That’s going to work in McLennan County, because we have so much poverty here, particularly in the Waco ISD,” Roznovsky said.
Preddy was a member of the Central Texas Literacy Association, and partnered with fellow member Larry Browing, who is also a professor at the Baylor University School of Education. Together with Roznovsky, the three Wacoans were able to become a 501c3 organization, with tax-exempt status. The Lexington Herald loaned the organization name and artwork for the posters to the founders. They were in hopes that every newspaper across the country would start a similar project. Though the programs have not yet expanded nationally, it has had huge success across the McLennan county area.
The organization caters to public and private schools all across the county. The give books to students from preschool to fifth grade, ages three through 10. If the school has 80 percent or more students on free or reduced lunch, all the students in those grade levels will receive the new and free books. If the school has a more diversified income, the students on free or reduced lunches will receive the books.
Storybook Christmas’s current board chairman, Sue Johnson, has been helping run the organization since 2002, after retiring from 32 years of teaching at the high school level. Teaching at the high school level, she hadn’t heard about the organization, but when she was exposed to it, she thought it was truly wonderful.
“I didn’t realize there were families that didn’t have access to magazines and the morning newspaper, I just kind of assumed everybody took the morning newspaper like my family does. But when you’re a single parent, that’s definitely not one of the necessities of life,” Johnson said.
Reading is essential in the life of a child, according to Johnson. It increased their vocabulary and it teaches them something she said.
“Anytime you get a child to read, that’s education,” Johnson said.
Both Johnson and Roznovsky encourage Baylor students to get involved with the outreach program. Storybook Christmas always accepts new donated books. Donations can be dropped off at the Waco Tribune Herald or at the local Barnes & Noble, in a drop box at the front of the store. However, students are encouraged to pick out a book that does not have a holiday theme.
“If that is the only book that the child owns, we don’t want it to be specifically geared towards the holidays,” Johnson said.
Books must be geared towards elementary students, no older than fifth grade. The organization also encouraged the public to give back with a check or cash donation.
“We try and encourage people to donate money or checks, which are totally tax deductible because we are a 501c3 organization, so we can buy the appropriate books and we can normally buy them at a much cheaper price because we can buy them in bulk,” Johnson said.
Students are also encouraged to give back through service.
“In December the shelves will look pretty empty, and they will need replenishing. That’s when we will need volunteers for book plating, shelving, grade leveling and all of that. That’s more in the spring and in the summer,” Johnson said.
Storybook Christmas operates all year and can always donations, service and support.
As the organization has grown and reached more and more children, the stories have grown more touching. Although the organization is a nonprofit and operates through volunteer efforts, Roznovsky will never doubt the importance of their mission.
She remembers two or three years ago around the holiday season, handing out books to a school and a young girl reading the entire day. Storybook Christmas had their photographer with them to capture the joy of the children. When it was time to leave, and the children were being dismissed for the holiday break, the little girl remained reading on the windowsill.
The teacher walked over and said to her, “Why don’t you pack up your book and your mom will finish reading it to you at home?”
The girl smiled and said, “Oh no, my mom can’t read, I’m going to take this home and read it to her.”
Roznovsky said that it was after this moment all their crew gathered together as their photographer said, “If you ever wonder why we do this project, you’ve just been told.”