Thursday, January 5, 2012

Founder of Reader to Reader program in Amherst receives literacy honor

By Nick Grabbe
Daily Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST - When David Mazor was 13, he found a used paperback by Boston Celtics center Bill Russell. Reading it opened his eyes to both racial discrimination and how to visualize what you want, he said.

"You never know what book someone will discover that will change their life," he said.

Forty years later, Mazor has changed thousands of lives by collecting books and donating them to poor towns and schools, Native American reservations, areas hit by natural disasters and 13 foreign countries. Mazor, who is marking his Reader to Reader program's 10th anniversary this year, was named one of 10 "literacy champions" by the Massachusetts Literacy Foundation in September.

"My guiding principle is that reading is the key that unlocks the door to success, whether it is academic achievement, better job opportunities or the simple joy that comes from discovering that reading is one of life's most enjoyable activities," he said in accepting the award.

Reader to Reader started in 2001 when Mazur woke up in the middle of the night wondering what the poorest town in the U.S. was. He went to his computer and found it was Durant, Miss., and in the morning called the town librarian and found she'd acquired no new books in four years. So he sent her a box of books that had been discarded around Amherst, and found that he enjoyed the experience.

Since then, Reader to Reader has collected and donated about 4.5 million books. It has branched out into numerous programs, encouraging teenage mothers to write, turning Amherst College students into online mentors for low-income children, and even placing books in the waiting rooms of state offices in Roxbury.

On Wednesday, he sent 300 books to Holyoke to be given to children as part of Friday's Three Kings Day celebration. In September, he sent 25,000 books to the public schools of Chicopee, also destined for schools in Springfield, West Springfield and Holyoke. In mid-December, a U-Haul truck left Amherst with 15,000 books, computers and toys for the Navajo Nation, bringing the total sent there this year to 50,000 books.

"We're isolated here, and these books give our students a wonderful window on the world," said Carla Clauschee, a librarian at a high school there.

The Literacy Champion Awards, started in 2003, are designed to identify, recognize and support people making contributions to the advancement of literacy. The award includes a grant of $3,500, which Mazor is using to launch Discover Books, a program for teenage parents in the Springfield schools.

The nine other literacy champions included an English instructor at a jail in Ludlow, a language arts teacher in Boston, a reading specialist at a charter school in Haverhill and a career counselor in Attleboro.

When Mazor began Reader to Reader, he found books at tag sales, library discard piles and the Amherst transfer station. Now he gets new books from publishers like Random House and Scholastic, from Barnes & Noble and from authors.

Stephanie Meyer, whose "Twilight" books have sold more than 100 million copies, found out about Reader to Reader and donated shirts, posters and books that became prizes at Navajo Pine High School in New Mexico. Singer Carly Simon sent 2,000 copies of a children's book she wrote.

Reader to Reader operates out of the Cadigan Center for Religious life at Amherst College, which has donated the basement space to the program. It also has a warehouse for books in Holyoke.

In July, Mazor hired his first full-time employee, Kathyrn Libby, who started volunteering at Reader to Reader on her second day as a student at Amherst College. She is running the mentoring program, which links children from low-income backgrounds with Amherst College students, who read the same books and discuss them online. This coming semester, 60 student mentors have signed up, and more than 250 low-income children have benefited from the program.

The new Springboard Program helps students in the Five Colleges learn skills necessary to lead their own literacy projects. Yet to be launched is Generation W, which will bring together low-income teen-agers and senior citizens.

Reader to Reader has also donated annually about 100 used computers that have been discarded by Amherst College. In August it sent computers to a school in Ghana, and in November it sent computers to libraries in Vermont and New York that had lost theirs in Tropical Storm Irene.

Mazor is mindful of the transition in books from print on paper to pixels on a screen. He's already thinking about the long-term impact on his supply of books when residents of affluent communities switch to e-readers, and the practicality of sending an encyclopedia to Costa Rica on an e-reader without having to pay massive shipping charges.

But he said the book is a technology that's been perfected over the centuries, and there's still something wonderful about holding a book, opening it and turning the pages.

"I spent a lot of time at the Jones Library wandering around randomly, pulling books off shelves," he said. "Libraries let you discover books you didn't know you'd want to read."

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