Ponte Vedra Beach resident organizes book fairs to promote literacy, reduce poverty

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A Ponte Vedra Beach resident is helping to raise literacy levels in Jacksonville’s low-income communities and ultimately reduce poverty by bringing back book fairs to local schools.

Ellen Wiss, a longtime education advocate and volunteer in the Greater Jacksonville area, is the cofounder of Read USA, a nonprofit organization that partners with local organizations, businesses and philanthropists to bring Scholastic book fairs to low-income schools and provide books to students free of charge. Just last week, Wiss’s Read USA hosted book fairs at six local elementary schools that ultimately served 2,500 First Coast children.

“Literacy is the best place to start to lift people out of poverty,” said Wiss, who lives on Sea Hammock Way south of Mickler’s Landing Beach. “If children choose their own books, even if it’s above their reading level, they’re likely to read it. That’s the difference.”

Each child participating in the book fairs purchases his or her favorite titles with a $15 voucher that is covered by funds from private donors. Scholastic then matches 55 percent of each event’s sales and returns the proceeds to the schools to help replenish their libraries.

Read USA’s efforts started at George Washington Carver Elementary School in 2011 as a volunteer project created by Wiss and former teacher Vanessa Tussey. At the time, Wiss was volunteering with the Junior League of Jacksonville in Tussey’s classroom, where she quickly realized the abilities of the young teacher.

“She was so strong that she was given the highest percentage of the lowest-performing children,” said Wiss. “I was never not in awe.”

Eager to expand Tussey’s reach, Wiss asked what else she could do to help. The school had never held a book fair, said Tussey, due to its overall lack of resources, and her students needed books they were excited to read and take home for the summer. Many low-income schools in the area stopped holding book fairs altogether, Tussey and Wiss explained, because students didn’t have the resources to participate.

“It was almost an insult,” said Wiss. “That’s why they died out.”

So, the duo garnered funds from several individuals and corporate donors and organized George Washington Carver’s first book fair, which provided every student in the school with gift certificates to purchase books free of charge. Tussey said kids left the fair clutching books to their chests, in disbelief that they were now the proud owners of novels they were excited to read. It was not uncommon, she added, to see students reading books while waiting in line for the restroom or while at recess or lunch. By the end of the year, George Washington Carver had advanced from a D to B school.

This result and reaction sealed the deal for Wiss, who vowed to organize the event at the school on an annual basis. Tussey, who is now a lawyer for a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale, has returned each year to help.

“This organization arose in the perfect way because it’s responsive to the needs of the community,” said Tussey. “Ellen asked the perfect questions. She said, ‘what do you need and how can we help?’ If you want to effect social change, those are the questions you ask.”

After holding four book fairs at George Washington Carver, Wiss began developing plans to scale the model and expand their efforts to more schools. In 2016, community philanthropists and former Jacksonville Jaguars Owners Delores and Wayne Weaver expressed interest in helping and ultimately sponsored four additional book fairs at Annie R. Morgan Elementary School, Brentwood Elementary School, Rufus E. Payne Elementary School and Smart Pope Livingston Elementary School.

Read USA recruited volunteers from the Junior League of Jacksonville, Teach for America, City Year, Jacksonville Public Education Fund, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Women’s Giving Alliance (WGA) and many other organizations to staff the fairs. In one year, the group’s efforts expanded by 500 percent, and Read USA was officially formed as a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

Because of continued support from the Weavers and additional contributions from Compass Bank and Susan and Greg Roth, Read USA served the same schools this year while also expanding its reach to Susie E. Tolbert Elementary School.

In total, the book fairs have provided approximately 18,000 books to 6,000 students over the past six years, thanks to $90,000 in donations and nearly 3,000 volunteer hours. An additional 10,000 books have come into the schools due to the nearly $50,000 matched by Scholastic.

Wiss’s goal moving forward is to spread her efforts throughout the Beaches area, which she said has more impoverished pockets than assumed. Long term, she hopes to bring book fairs to as many low-income schools as possible and engage more people like herself in this meaningful work.

“When you see it with your own eyes that these children are no different, it was a transformational change for me,” said Wiss, who encourages those interested in volunteering or sponsoring to visit http://readusainc.com/. “It just seems hopeless until you see that when you believe in them and you equip them, they have just as much opportunity, and they prove they have just as much ability as anyone else. It’s life changing.”

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