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December 15, 2010

Stephanie O’Dea on Making a Difference

Posted by Anonymous

StephanieODea.jpgStephanie O’Dea is an award-winning blogger, a bestselling author and a busy mom of three, whose next cookbook --- MORE MAKE IT FAST, COOK IT SLOW: 200 Brand-New, Budget-Friendly, Slow-Cooker Recipes --- hits shelves on December 28th, just in time for readers to make amends for any holiday excesses. Below, Stephanie reflects on the years she spent working with underprivileged kids --- and the heroes who touched their lives with the help of a book.

In my former life, I ran preschool centers for underprivileged children. In one of the centers, the clientele were homeless families, and I had 24 children ages 18 months to 5 years in my care day-to-day.

I never knew how long a child was going to remain in my facility --- the families were in transition, and I treated each day as if it might be the last day for me to leave an impression.

I made one goal for myself. I wanted to impress the importance of reading and the joy of becoming lost in a great story upon these kids. I made dozens of phone calls, begging for children’s books --- new or used --- from local businesses and charity organizations. I wanted each child to have a good dozen or so books of his or her very own, to take along on their travels in a tiny backpack.

Thanksgiving came and went, and the book donations began flooding in for the holiday season. The children were ecstatic. Instead of a formal lesson about shapes, colors, numbers or letters, we just read. I spread the books out in the center of the floor, and the children and teachers would lay down on their bellies and turn pages. Sometimes they spoke, and sometimes they were silent and simply looked.

I observed the interaction and jotted down notes. One of the little boys put a donated copy of THE BERENSTAIN BEARS between his knees and “rode” it around the room, as if the picture book was a pony. Another began hoarding the board books --- he took one at a time from the pile, systematically walked over to his cubby to deposit his find, and then returned for another. And another.

On Christmas Eve, the local fire department came, engines blaring, and offered rides to the children and staff. Afterwards, the firefighters sat down for hot chocolate and marshmallows and read picture books to their newest fans.

The biggest hit was CURIOUS GEORGE VISITS THE FIREHOUSE, and it brought tears to my eyes to see these great, big, huge men in complete uniform reading this same story over and over. Because that’s what the children wanted. And because that is how you foster a life-long love of books and reading.

Tomorrow, Mary Jane Clark remembers a special gift that "began with a P and ended with a T" --- and sparked an interest that led to her career as a bestselling author.