By JESS FELDTMAN and LAURA DU TOIT
The heat bears down on Sun City as a white car emblazoned with the Lebone Centre’s logo crawls along the rutted, filth-strewn street. Alongside the vehicle traipse three people wearing matching red shirts, hefting cardboard boxes. A rubbish dump forms the precarious foundations of Sun City; tin shacks and crumbling walls provide shade for dust-streaked children and their scrawny dogs.
As the car makes its way through the community, faces appear at the windows and curious children gather in their yards.
Every couple of metres, the Lebone convoy is called to a halt, and a Ziploc bag of shiny books emerges from one of the cardboard boxes, to be passed into the waiting hands of a grinning child. The red-shirted staff might as well be Santa Claus’s elves and the Ziplocked books their treasured gifts.
The innovative “20 Books in 200 Homes in 2020” campaign supports a culture of reading in homes for children during their early development. Cathy Gush and Anneliese Maritz are the devoted coordinators of the project for the Lebone Centre, a Makhanda NGO which supports vulnerable children’s early childhood literacy and development.
The Lebone Centre serves as the organising hub, where the book packages are curated to be sent out to homes in the surrounding communities of Sun City, Ghost Town, Scott’s Farm and Vergenoeg.
“Our vision is for families and homes in a particular area to have reading and writing material that enables them to reap the benefits of books in homes,” says Gush. The eponymous 200 families are made up of 20 Aftercare Programme learners and 28 Preschool learners from the Lebone Centre, and another 152 families in the area.
Gush and Maritz were inspired to co-direct the 20 Books initiative in Makhanda by a presentation at the 2019 LITASA Conference about an international longitudinal study led by Mariah Evans, an associate professor at the University of Nevada.
The researchers found that having as few as 20 books in the home is a tipping point for propelling a child to a higher level of education. The benefits accrued regardless of family income, socio-economic status, or literacy levels. The more books children own, the greater the benefit.
Further inspiration came from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which gifts one million free books to children around the world every month.
Two consignments of books were delivered before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Once lockdown regulations eased to Level 1, the Lebone Centre was once again abuzz with preparations to deliver the next three sets of consigned books before the end of 2020. Each package consists of four brand new books, selected to be age- and language-appropriate for each family.
So far, the dynamic team has delivered 2400 books over four book drops. In mid-October, the Lebone staff fought the heat to deliver a car-load full of books to families in the Sun City surrounds.
The smiles of the recipients proved the trip’s worth and the staff are planning one final drop before year-end. Gush and Maritz look forward to expanding 20 Books beyond 2020. “But, perhaps it will have different iterations, such as a mobile library,” says Gush.
20 Books does not have any specific funding, but the diverse book packages were made possible through generous donations of brand-new books. Book Dash, Nal’ibali and Biblionef donated local South African storybooks, whilst the DG Murray Trust donated 10 000 English books that were sourced from Books for Africa in the USA. Funds from other Lebone Centre sponsors, such as the Van der Meer family in the Netherlands, were also used towards the project.
20 Books addresses some of the disturbingly low levels of literacy within South Africa. In 2016, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which assesses children’s reading comprehension, placed South Africa last out of 50 countries. It was revealed that 78% of Grade Four learners in South Africa could not read for basic meaning in any national language.
These are the statistics that the 20 Books team is striving to change; one book drop at a time. The 20 Books team is hopeful that children’s vocabulary and confidence in reading will grow; over time, Gush believes that the relatively small project will have an effect on literacy rates in Makhanda.
During the lockdown, many schools have turned to digital technology for teaching and learning support. Yet, this has proved unviable for the vast majority of South African youth. “As much as technology is real and helps hugely, as we’ve experienced during the lockdown, our people in the community are disadvantaged. They don’t have phones that can access those types of digital educational resources,” says Anneliese Maritz. “When you are fighting to survive, you’re not buying airtime and data.”
Physical books are still essential. “In communities like these, where people do not have the income to buy books, it is very special. There is almost this hunger for it,” says Gush. “Children need the complete, tactile experience of books. It’s not just about accessing something to read; it is also about ownership of a book.”
During the October book drop, most of the book packages were received with a giddy sense of entitlement – each recipient looked simultaneously thrilled and unsurprised by their package. Instead, they held out their hands, their faces filled with happy acceptance.
Kaylynne Rushin and Anthea Davies have not only been a vital help to the 20 Books campaign but are also parents whose children have received book packages.
Rushin’s eight-year-old daughter received one and chose to share it with her two sisters, aged two and ten. “She was so overjoyed and over the moon when she received the book package that she decided to open her own library,” explains Rushin. “I really believe that this one book package will help all my children prosper in their education, especially their reading, literacy and language skills.”
Some of the book packages are targeted at children who are part of the Aftercare Programme, which happens on-site at Lebone Centre, but this does not stop many of the children from sharing their books with their siblings.
Davies’ three children are also practising the ‘sharing is caring’ mantra. “They were so happy when they realised that they were receiving a book package. I told them to choose one each and look after it,” says Davies. “My little one is always asking me to read to her, and she can never contain her excitement when she sees more books being delivered.”
Both Davies’s and Rushin’s responses highlight the irreplaceable joy and value that these books have brought into their children’s lives.
Rushin and Davies’ families represent just two of the many people who have been positively impacted by Lebone’s work. Even under the pressures of the global pandemic, the 20 Books initiative has made communities smile – one book closer to a brighter future.
If you would like to help out with the ’20 books in 200 homes’ initiative or any of the other projects run by Lebone Centre, please contact:
Cathy Gush: email@example.com
Anneliese Maritz: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lebone Centre: 046 622 7985