AMHERST - Heather Leonard, an Amherst College sophomore, has been reading novels and then discussing them with Navajo high school students in New Mexico.
She's part of an online program that connects 15 "reading mentors" on a wealthy and literate campus with 15 gifted youths 2,000 miles away at a poor school with low reading comprehension levels. Having established online relationships, she and other Amherst College students in August will visit the New Mexico youths, who in turn will come to Amherst in October.
Leonard said she's been reading novels at the same time as the New Mexico students, then going to an online forum to discuss what they liked about the books. "Then I guide the discussion to what are the themes of this novel, where is the tension, what is the author's intent," she said. "The students have been more responsive than I expected and pushed me to think harder than I thought I would have to."
Some of the novels have had Native American themes, such as "Love Medicine" and "Winter in the Blood," while others are literary bestsellers such as "The Kite Runner" and "Angela's Ashes."
The Navajo Outreach Program grew out of a partnership between Reader to Reader, which collects donated books and gives them to people in low-income areas, and Amherst College's new Center for Community Engagement.
"No matter where you're from, no matter how poor, there's probably a book that can change your life if we can get it into your hands," said David Mazor, founder of Reader to Reader.
Since 2001, he has distributed almost 2 million books, and stores about 10,000 in the basement of the Cadigan Center, an Amherst College building on Woodside Avenue. The organization had already supplied 7,000 books to the high school in isolated Navajo, N.M., and Mazor talked with the librarian there about how to get students to read them.
Last fall, he met Molly Mead, the new director of the college's program for involving students in service projects. "She just got it," Mazor said. "She was so clear on the benefits of it and what our mission and challenges were."
Mead said the program is different from many of the other community service projects she has helped to arrange for Amherst College students over the last nine months.
"I worry that too much of what students are doing is nice volunteer service that's not making much of a difference in the world," she said. "Getting kids to read who are not otherwise reading - what a window into the world it will give them."
The program has broadened the concept of community engagement far beyond the Pioneer Valley, Mazor said. And it has broadened the perspective of the Amherst College students as well as the Navajo youths, he said.
"None of them had read 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,'" Mazor said.
"Their energy, interest in the books and in corresponding have made it the success it is."
Reader to Reader provided all the books for the program, and plans to send each Navajo youth seven extra books for summer reading. Amherst College will pay the airfare for the student exchanges in August and October.
When 12 to 15 Navajo students come to Amherst College, they will learn about more than books. Admissions officials will talk to them about how to choose a college, and members of the Athletics Department will speak about fitness and nutrition. They will read a book by Amherst author and professor Madeleine Blais and discuss it with her, and meet her husband, author John Katzenbach. They'll meet Dan Giat of Pelham, who wrote the screenplay for the HBO production of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."
The students will get a cooking lesson from "Chef Bill" Collins of Pelham, visit an Amherst recording studio, and go to museums, a robotics lab, and the basketball hall of fame.
Amherst College English Professor Marisa Parham will offer a course next fall that will have a service component in which her students will serve as online reading mentors to the Navajo students. She will do a weekly podcast lecture so the Navajo students can get a college-level lecture, Mazor said.
He and Parham will accompany the Amherst College students on the trip to New Mexico in August.
"If we're going to pair them with Amherst students online, why not bring the reading mentors to the reservation and have a discussion in person?" he said.
"And if they can go out there, then logically the Navajo students should come here and experience what life is like on a college campus and see something very different from New Mexico."
Mazor, an Amherst native and former film distributor, will receive an award for his Reader to Reader work at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce's annual dinner on June 5.
This week, he delivered 15,000 children's books to schools in Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield and West Springfield. Next year, he hopes to double the number of students in the Navajo Outreach Program and see how far the concept of cultural exchange can go.
"There's a first-year student at Amherst from Beijing, and I've ordered books of Chinese poetry in English so that Navajo students next fall can read them and give their insights into Chinese culture," Mazor said.