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Books for Bulloch Backpack Buddies
Usborne Books team leader, Altrusa Club partner for local kids
Books for Backpack Buddies
Local Usborne Books & More Team Leader Hillary Zeigler is partnering with Altrusa Club of Statesboro to provide books for Backpack Buddies recipients in Bulloch County. (Special)

Local resident Hillary Zeigler, Usborne Books & More team leader, is partnering with Altrusa Club of Statesboro, a non-profit organization, to give books for Christmas to all of the children in the Backpack Buddies program in Bulloch County and is hoping for donations from the community to accomplish the task. 

Approximately 700 children in Bulloch County receive backpacks weekly that contain easy-to-prepare and nutritious snacks to last through the weekend. 

"Many children [in Bulloch County] are dependent on school meals during the week and have little to no food on weekends and short breaks," said Susan Allen, Statesboro First Baptist Church children's minister. 

Allen is responsible for bringing the Backpack Buddies program to Bulloch County several years back after attending a conference with a focus on providing hope for the hungry and learned of similar programs that had been initiated in other parts of the country. 

The pilot program began at Julia P. Bryant Elementary School for one year and, very quickly, other churches and organizations joined in such that all Bulloch County Schools are now covered.

In addition to the healthy breakfast and snack items included weekly, backpack recipients receive books once a month from Altrusa Club of Statesboro, a local non-profit organization that serves the community with a variety of projects throughout the year, in addition to the book donations. 

"Our main focus is literacy," said Marilyn Hale, Altrusa member and past president. "The way people get out of poverty is to read and get an education. The main reason we're so involved with literacy is to help them get out of poverty.

"It's great to feed people, but that education, that's going to help lift them out of poverty."

Studies prove that ownership of books encourages further education. A Nevada study reported that "a child from a family rich in books is 19 percentage points more likely to complete university than a comparable child growing up without a home library."

Also reported in the study that took place over a 20-year timeframe was this: "Regardless of nationality, level of education, or their parents' economic status, children who grew up with books in their homes reached a higher level of education than those who did not, and the beneficial effect is greatest for children from disadvantaged homes."

The idea to include books in the backpacks came from two Altrusa members, Ruth MacKinnon and Karen Lavender, shortly after the Backpack Buddies program began. 

"We were at an Altrusa meeting, discussing backpacks, and Karen said, 'Wonder if we could give them books,'" said MacKinnon. "I jumped on that, and that first year, we gave books to two schools every other month."

MacKinnon then applied for a grant with firstbook.org, as well as to Altrusa International Foundation, to secure funds for books every month for all of the schools. In recent years, the local non-profit has also received donations from the East Georgia Regional Medical Center auxiliary, the Statesboro Kiwanis Club, Georgia Southern University's SOAR program and others. 

"It's a very satisfying project," MacKinnon said. "Teachers have told us that students are more motivated to read when they have their own books."

And the project just keeps growing. 

"We found out that poor children have a speaking vocabulary of one-third that of other children by the time they enter school," she said. "We wanted to catch them early, get them interested in books early." 

The club began giving books to three local day cares and also added eight pre-Kindergarten classes in four schools monthly.

Just last year, Altrusa Club of Statesboro gave away 9,200 books to Bulloch County children. 

As startling as that number sounds, the total number of books distributed locally since 2012 by Altrusa Club of Statesboro adds up to 46,000, and the club is on target to exceed 50,000 books by the end of this school year.

Zeigler hopes to assist with that accomplishment. She is seeking donations now because Usborne Books & More will match 50 percent on all donations received during the book drive. 

Zeigler, who has three children of her own, said, "We hope to develop a love for reading and get books in their homes." She spouts off somewhat of her own motto: "Own it! Love it! Read it!"

To donate to the project, send contributions to Altrusa, P.O. Box 2127, Statesboro, GA, 30459; or visit https://chuffed.org/project/books-for-backpack-buddies. 

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