Roanoke puts 'Books on Buses' to encourage kids' summer reading

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by Andrew Adkins, courtesy of The Roanoke Times

Six-year-old Rayjon Johnson is thrilled about Roanoke’s new “Books on Buses” initiative.  “I like it because I get to read books to everybody and I get to get on the bus,” he said.

As part of the Star City Reads program, Mayor David Bowers announced the launch of Books on Buses in front of a group of young children and day care teachers at the city’s Main Library on Monday.  The program is designed to encourage grade-level reading by providing free books for parents and children on their daily commute on Valley Metro buses.

Approximately 20 to 30 packets containing five children’s books each will be available on three city buses. “One [of the buses] is the VA bus up to the VA hospital, one is the Valley View bus and one is the Goodwill Salem bus,” said Bowers.  The buses serve Melrose Avenue, Rugby Boulevard, Williamson Road and Lansdowne neighborhoods. Bowers said the routes were chosen because “the largest number of family ridership is on those three buses.”

Sheila Umberger, Roanoke Public Libraries director, said the idea came about in February.  “We had this idea that there’s a lot of parents on the buses,” she said. “The average child from an affluent family may have 200 to 300 books in their home library. A child that’s disadvantaged may have 10.”

The books for the program cost $1,200 and the Roanoke Public Library Foundation is paying for them through fundraising it conducts for the Star City Reads program and other summer reading programs, Umberger said.  One of the books featured in the packet is the “Roanoke Baby” board book. Umberger said the five books in the packets vary in reading level. Each packet is also different, allowing children and parents to read different content, she said.

Charmaine Johnson, Rayjon’s mother, is a foster parent and an assistant teacher at Today’s Kids , a day care center in Roanoke. On Monday she was accompanied by Rayjon and his brother, RamonTay Johnson, 9, and 18 children from Today’s Kids.  “The children get to come out and explore. They get the books and they get to meet new people, it’s pretty cool,” she said of the Books on Buses launch.

Umberger said she hopes citizens who borrow book packets return them, but the best-case scenario for Books on Buses is that the books are continuously replaced and the program expands.  “Just putting a book in the hands of these children, these beautiful and precious children of Roanoke, and helping them read, they will learn to read,” said Bowers. “And when they learn to read, they will then read to learn.”