Two Hudson Valley students spread the love for reading

Emily Peck and Sophia Roberts. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

Picture this: Two Onteora freshmen, Sophia Roberts of West Hurley and Emily Peck of Boiceville, arrive at New York City’s Grand Central Station in the pungent heat of a New York City August, each hefting a suitcase filled with a hundred books. They’re dressed “business casual,” as Peck later describes it, and have only been to the City a handful of times each. They’ll be overnighting at the Brooklyn apartment of Roberts’ older brother, up three flights. They’re going to deliver all the books they’ve got to six locations: a mix of children’s hospitals and senior centers, for the most part. And they’re going to do this using the New York Subway.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” said Peck, contemplating two more similar book-laden trips in the coming year as part of the Book Donation Project she and Sophia founded in 2018. “But it made to concentrate on where we could take the subway because neither of us drive and we wouldn’t have been able to do what we wanted to do up here.”

That something the two “wanted to do,” their Book Donation Project, had its start in the Onteora High School library where the two students liked to spend their lunches as “a pair of hardcore book nerds.” There, librarian Amy Weisz had suggested Roberts and Peck apply for a grant from the New Paltz-based Maya Gold Foundation, whose mission to empower youth to access their inner wisdom and realize their dreams are made real through a mix of events, trips and project grants for Hudson Valley youth.

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“Ms. Weisz asked if we could come up with a project that was civic-minded or community-oriented,” Roberts recalled.

“We realized we care a lot about spreading our love for reading,” Peck added, speaking about how the two honed their idea of who they wanted to share with down to those who are forced to be away from home and need books. “That seemed double as good,” she added.

The project received $1000 from the foundation and the two students went to Golden Notebook to spend most of it on books. But that was after they decided on their destinations for them — five New York City institutions that they contacted, as well as Vassar Brothers Hospital in Poughkeepsie — and found out what seniors might want to read, as well as kids in hospital waiting rooms. 

As the two spent time at the library their sophomore year, they went over all they’d learned, and come to treasure, about their experience during the summer of 2018. They speak now about the joys of reading to kids, of getting to know seniors needing to speak to new people, and the pride they felt organizing something that felt so monumental…all by themselves. 

They decided to try it all again, on their own. Without a grant.

“We went around and got book donations; the libraries helped, as did Woodstock Elementary,” Roberts said. “We reached out to community members and got some donations to help with our expenses taking the books to New York City.”

“We built up good relationships,” Peck added. 

Now juniors at Onteora, Roberts and Peck are planning not one, but two new Book Donation Project trips to New York in the coming year, one this winter and the other in the spring. They’ve even started a GoFundMe page, and are fully into the ways that organizing such things get easier with experience.

They’re also getting a sense of the directions their lives may end up taking, education- and career-wise.

“Although I find myself pulled in a lot of different directions, I’ve found that I enjoy the caretaker side of what we’ve been doing,” Sophia Roberts said. “I’ve been thinking about volunteering at Elizabeth Seton (Children’s Center in Yonkers)…”

“Sophia and I both have a love for uncommon things. We love spread sheets, communications, organization,” said Emily Peck. “I’ve become very interested in non-profits, the way they communicate with people and how much goes into things behind the scenes. I want to go into international nonprofits.”

And the nature of working with books, a technology that many have said is passing?

Each student talks some about kindles and e-books, but admits that they are still drawn to the physicality of both hardbacks and soft covers.

Peck recalled the way a kid smiles after you read them from a book, and then hand it to them to hold, to have.

Talk about lasting lessons. Talk about great projects, realized.

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