Older adult volunteers support children’s literacy programs

Alicia Colombo

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

Philadelphia has a literacy gem with Tree House Books in North Philadelphia, located at 1430 Susquehanna Ave. “We’re a giving library,” says Michael Brix, executive director of Tree House Books (THB).

“Kids are more likely to succeed in school if there’s an active library at home, so we provide books.”

In 2021, THB gave away 80,165 books, added 810 new members to its giving library, made 249 bookmobile stops, and served 263 children through literacy programs. These resources are available to help parents, grandparents and other caregivers in Philadelphia enhance literacy skills for the children in their lives.

Some of THB’s programs and activities depend on older adults who volunteer. “I read to the children,” said Ozella Smith, a retired teacher in her 60s who volunteered weekly before the pandemic.

“I sort books, shelve them, and suggest books to parents and children interested in particular topics,” said another volunteer. “I urge parents to take books to build or expand home libraries. Volunteering here gets me out of the house and lets me meet people.”

Launched in 2005 as a for-profit bookstore to enliven the Susquehanna Avenue corridor, the venture drew few patrons. Then real estate developer John Weiss, Temple University professor Eli Goldblatt, former Black Panther Barbara Easley Cox, and other members of the Church of the Advocate’s Community Development Corporation, helped the bookstore morph into a nonprofit that champions literacy.

“We test kids’ reading levels when they first arrive so we can guide them to appropriate books,” said Brix. “We succeed when kids like coming here because they feel safe and comfortable.”

Tree House Books, named for the trees painted on the walls and the large, enclosed platform decorated like a tree house, has a two-tiered program. First, THB supplies kids with books to read. “Most of [the books we give out] are for children, but there are many for adults, too,” Brix said. “When kids see their parents reading, it encourages them to do likewise.”

THB also helps to instill a life-long love of reading with its after-school program that further builds literacy skills. “I live across the street, and I do whatever I can to help out,” said volunteer Jamil Jabbaar, 71, a retired carpenter. “Tree House Books is an after-school haven for my teenage son, Mukhlis. He gets help with homework, and he likes socializing and talking with friends here. We attend all the family events.”

Tree House Books volunteer Jamil Jabbaar with his son Mukhlis

Brix hopes to engender more such ties. “I want Tree House Books to be a place where the community feels a sense of belonging, a place to get refreshed and renewed.” He actively works with Tree House board members to seek financial support and corporate sponsorships and writes grant proposals to garner funding that sustains THB.

“Individuals and organizations like churches give us books,” said Emma Goldstein, THB’s giving library manager. “A group of lawyers recently donated books [but] donations are a two-way street. When the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, shelters or playgrounds request books from us, we provide them.”

In addition to maintaining its year-round giving library and literacy center in North Philadelphia, THB also runs the Words on Wheels summer program that distributes books by cars and bicycles to homes in the community.

The need for volunteers spikes in late spring when Temple University students who give THB time during the school year head for home, said Goldstein. “Whatever your interests, we can use your talents,” said Goldstein. “Some volunteer spots involve using a computer, but not all of them, by any means. The main thing is that volunteers should enjoy people and books.”

Before the pandemic, THB volunteers regularly read to children, worked on art projects with them, co-taught literacy classes, helped kids put on plays, and accompanied children and teachers on outings to places such as the Smith Playground and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.

“We could have volunteers come sort books and help customers find books they like,” said Brix. “Some volunteers go out on our new bookmobile, the Traveling Tree House.”

Many older adults find satisfaction in watching children’s love of reading develop. Their efforts are helping to shape the next generation.

Tree House Books is open at 1430 W. Susquehanna Ave. on weekdays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information or to donate books, go to TreeHouseBooks.org or call 215-236-1760.

Native Philadelphian Constance Garcia-Barrio writes about many topics, including Black history.

Categories: Education Milestones eNews Volunteer


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