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Books for Sumter Children annual gala to mark a decade of free books

By Beth Alston

AMERICUS — It’s time to purchase tickets to the 10th annual Love of Literacy Gala, hosted by Books for Sumter Children, as its main fundraiser.
Sylvia Roland, a board member and event co-chair with board chairman Candy Riccardi, talked about the event and organization with the Times-Recorder recently.
Roland, who has been involved in the Books for Sumter Children for six years, said the organization started 10 years ago with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Station, and was later embraced by the Ferst Foundation. The local organization provides one free book every month for children from birth to age five who live in Sumter County. Upon inception here, about 30 children were signed up; that number has since grown to about 1,000. Roland says there are more children locally who have not been signed up by their parent or guardian to receive the free books, but every effort is being made to identify those children who are not being served. The books are free, mailed to the parent’s or guardian’s home, without obligation, except to enjoy the books!
In addition to the gala, Books for Sumter Children, a 501-c-3, nonprofit organization, is also funded through various entities such as the Americus Kiwanis Club and the Americus Rotary Club, Roland said. She and her husband, Donnie Roland, have been hosting a Kentucky Derby fundraiser party at their home for the past four years.
In their effort to identify children from birth to age 5 living in Sumter County, Books for Sumter Children works closely with Lake Blackshear Regional Library to sign up the kids. It is there that they maintain a small office space. Phoebe Sumter Medical Center also provides information on the free books program to the parents of all babies born here. Representatives of Books for Sumter Children also frequent events such as the annual Americus Kiwanis Club Pet Parade, downtown trick or treat, Arts in Rees Park, Plains Peanut Festival, and other places where children can be found and signed up. They also conduct open houses in local schools and Head Start.
“We love it when we go into the local schools to read to the students (through the local Kiwanis Club) and we ask if any have already read the book,” Roland said. “Lots of hands go up.”
Roland says over 50 percent of children in the eligible age group in Sumter County are signed up but their goal is to have 100 percent. The children are not required to have been born here. If they moved here with their family, and are between the ages of birth to 5, they are eligible to receive the free books.
The age-appropriate books are chosen and purchased by the Ferst Foundation and shipped at their expense. Roland said that many titles are also available in Spanish as well as English.
During the past 10 years, Books for Sumter Children has placed some 75,000 books into the hands of children, to be read to them by a parent or guardian or older sibling, and later to be read by the children themselves. The program nurtures a love of reading which can last a lifetime. If a child starts the program from birth, they can amass a total of 60 books by the time they celebrate their fifth birthday. That’s quite a sizeable library for a kid!
The organization’s operating budget goes strictly to purchase books for the children; all those involved volunteer their time.
Roland said that each year’s gala garners about $15,000. They also accept donations from people who attend the gala the evening of the event. She said some donors are anonymous and others, such as the Sumter EMC Foundation, also make generous donations.
This year’s gala is set for Thursday, Feb. 7, at Rees Park Economic Development Center, 409 Elm Ave. The social hour begins at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. catered by Cousins Catering. Due to limited seating, now is the time to purchased tickets. Tickets are $60/person and $120/couple. Mail check to P.O. Box 732, Americus GA 31709 or RSVP to 229-938-1946 or 229-815-0977.
This year’s gala dinner menu consists of prime rib with shrimp, scarlet mashed potatoes, salad, and dessert. The complimentary bar will feature wine and beer donated by board members. Local radio personality Thurston Clary will DJ music for after-dinner dancing.
“There is not a downside to this organization,” Roland told the Times-Recorder. “There is a study that’s been done that proves that the children who have read these books (through this literacy program) read better than their peers who have not.”
Other board members included Steve and Jeannie Stanfield, Michele Andrews, Joyce Carreker, Anne Isbell from Lake Blackshear Regional Library, Marilyn Coley from Head Start, Krystal Heath from Sumter County Family Connection Collaborative, Nancy Poole, Hannah Ricketts and Katie Duncan representing the Junior Service League of Americus, Mary Len Walker, Kim Christmas, Stephen Woodson, Lynde Parker, and Maggie McGruther. Roland said that former board members Johnny Shiver and Fred Richmond continue to be very active in the organization.