BK Story Voyager Special Section: Volunteers with Vision

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How to build a community book system?

St. Nicks Alliance Youth Committee convened in 2012 under the chairperson of Martha Suarez, St. Nicks Alliance board member and mom and lifelong resident of Williamsburg. The group pondered the big question: “What can we do to excite children about reading and spark a lifelong passion for reading?”  As a marketing executive, Martha often pondered questions of how to motivate children and adults. A conversation started and ideas flew. What could the committee of volunteers do? How could they build on the work of St. Nicks Alliance and its literacy focus in afterschool and further leverage the collective efforts within the schools of District 14 to help children read?

Martha is also the mom of two impressionable young boys, Luca (age 11) and Santino (age 9). She keenly observed how different spaces affected them: drab libraries versus brightly lit, stimulating book stores with cubbies and places where kids could hang outBKSV Suarez circle and crawl up with a book — an environment that facilitated reading and made personal exploration exciting! Research underpinned Martha’s concept and showed the value of putting more books in the hands of children. Studies indicated that a child with access to 500 books between the first and eighth grade is 36% more likely to graduate from high school. This research cut across 27 nations spanning different cultures and the results were the same. More books, more reading, greater academic success. After all, that’s the value of afterschool centers and St. Nicks Alliance partner schools.

Focus Groups Build Community Consensus

Volunteers together with Lai-Wan Wong, previous Director of Youth & Education; Ben Robles, St. Nicks Alliance Board; and Martha began a series of focus groups amongst families in St. Nicks’ afterschool centers and children. After about a month of consultation it was unanimous! We needed a book bus. A vehicle that was brightly lit would stimulate young minds; provide a system for distributing books, and support children in taking their passions on journeys through reading. The group first posited to get an old bus or an RV and we’ll fix it up. Once the system was to be mounted in a vehicle, St. Nicks Alliance Board Chair Joseph Robles who is President of Knights’ Collision and someone who knows moving vehicles entered the conversation. In fact, Joe Robles identified an “old RV bus” sitting out in the dessert in Nevada. The group fantasized about hopping a plane then driving the old beat up RV back to Brooklyn so it could be fixed up to support a mobile system. However, the group hadn’t fully thought through the idea. By that point David Dobosz joined the St. Nicks Alliance board and with his wife, Pat, along with Kerry Roeder (resident and a teacher librarian), and Monique Moore (a teacher at the Arbor School) all put their heads together and some exciting conversations ensued. However, it was just an idea. Ho, but the visioning board member said: “Do we make an idea real?”

Pratt Institute Design

With that St. Nicks turned to Ron Shiffman, a Pratt Institute professor and longtime advisor to St. Nicks Alliance. He was instrumental in helping to lead the effort to build Jennings Hall, a 150 unit senior development St. Nicks first project on Powers SBK_STORY_VOYAGER_FRONT_v2-FINAL-smalltreet, and his input drove many of the new ideas that have branded St. Nicks as an innovator in community development. Ron introduced the group to Jon Otis. A Pratt graduate professor in interior and exhibit design and together two classes were convened. The interior exhibit design group focused on the design of the vehicle and Shiffman’s Urban Planning class focused on systems and how the bus would function in community. Many, many great ideas emerged from the six month long process. But in the end, three multiple teams of graduate students conceptualized the bus, created preliminary design, use and function and with that the dream and vision began to take shape.

Gaining Credibility

The group now had illustrations, which made the idea more real and gave the volunteers credibility. The notion of fixing up an old bus in the dessert faded as the student design illustrated the complexities of building a state of the art vehicle that would serve community children. As the design details began to emerge, it appeared to be less and less practical to fix up an old bus and the group then began to evolve its focus on a new vehicle. It becomes a question of money. How to raise the money? In 2013, as the idea took flight, Councilman Stephen Levin introduced his participatory budgeting process to his constituents. Participatory Budgeting was an innovative way to secure City Capital dollars through a competitive process where residents were able to vote on those ideas to determine top priorities. Residents of Greenpoint and Williamsburg poured out during the voting period and in the end, St. Nicks Alliance’s book bus had captured the imagination of over 2,500 people becoming one of the top scorers in their first year competition leading to a capital budget award.

Stephen Levin’s Participatory Budget Brings in $198K

Stephen Levin’s Participatory Budgeting process would be a critical turning point in the process of building the vehicle. The committee concentrated on the details of the bus. How many entrances would it have? How would handicap accessibility function? Where would kids be able to sit and find a place to read? Would it have audio books? How would light come into the vehicle?  All of the details conceptualized by the students took thinking on the part of the committee. It was really exciting! Now the concept was real. Councilman Stephen Levin who is working a committee which has fostered reading across the City was very happy to see the project score such broad support amongst his constituents. The BK Story Voyager received $198K from Participatory Budgeting.

“The Story Voyager is one of the 33rd district’s most novel Participatory Budgeting ideas and I’m sure it will bring the joy of story-telling and reading to excited kids across North Brooklyn. I am proud that I could help make the Story Voyager a reality and grateful to all the volunteers and voters who donated their time and energy to develop this idea from start to finish and make our Participatory Budgeting process a success,” Levin stated.

Von Damm Family

The group took the next step towards competitive bidding. Prices were even higher than would be allocated with City Capital dollars. The group then turned to Mrs. Louise Von Damm, wife of founding board member of St. Nicks Alliance. Henry and Louise worked very hard and lived very simply to eventually create a family foundation. Indeed, Louise Von Damm understood the value of reading for children. The Von Damm family enthusiastically supported the bus concept when the opportunity to purchase the vehicle St Nick's Alliance's book /mobile  library bus for the communitywas presented. Mrs. Von Damm in the name of her daughter Karen had previously lent financial support to a small community library in Port Smith, New Hampshire, where Henry and Louise’s daughter, Karen, was a professor of oceanography. Karen was also an avid reader.

At Last BK Story Voyager Is Real Live Book System!

Generous support from Councilmember Stephen Levin’s Participatory Budget and the Von Damm Family Foundation enabled the design to take solid form as a unique asset for North Brooklyn’s youth.

“The creation of the BK Story Voyager is a direct result of inspired grassroots advocacy nurtured by St Nicks Alliance, furthering [their] goal of increasing exposure to books for kids in the most at risk neighborhoods in Brooklyn,” said Laura James,  Community Relations Manager for UPS (a contributor to the BK Story Voyager’s operation.


Author: Lori Ann Doyon

Managing editor, head writer, and lead photographer of Greenline | North Brooklyn News since October 2014. Resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 1990.

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