‘Invisible Thread’ author Laura Schroff helps BookMates honor volunteers
There was music, there was laughter, there was joy and there were even some tears at the recent BookMates Appreciation Evening at the Katz JCC. The gathering was the annual recognition for some 300-plus men and women who give some of their time to enrich and sweeten the lives of young children through reading with them, one-on-one every week. Nearly 3,000 children from kindergarten to second grade have been on the receiving end of these literary lifelines at schools in Camden, Cherry Hill and Willingboro.
Under the auspices of the Jewish Community Relations Council, an agency of the Jewish Federation, and the Catholic Jewish Commission, BookMates is an interfaith, social justice program. The Appreciation Evening sponsor was Townsend Press in memory of Henry H. Nadell and Marjorie Nadell Schneider.
An invocation by Father Joseph Wallace, co-director of the Catholic Jewish Commission, focused on the theme of encouragement, a major initiative of this program which links volunteers of all ages and backgrounds with children who need not just that encouragement, but also help with basics.
Shevrin, a former stockbroker, has found her calling in administering a program she believes can actually change lives. And changing lives became a prevailing theme of the Appreciation Evening.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd extended greetings to the audience, hailing the BookMates volunteers for helping to advance literacy in underserved communities like Camden, and in the process making children feel empowered.
One of the highlights of the evening was the performance by Sister Cities Girlchoir, led by Alycia Lee. The program is an outgrowth of El Sistema, an education system founded 35 years ago in Venezuela by pianist Jose Antonio Abre. Its origins: An 11- member youth orchestra. That modest beginning has morphed into a gigantic network of 400,000 participants that is now expanding in Europe and the United States.
Girls ages 10-13 from Camden, and North and West Philadelphia, sang a variety of songs, many in harmony, delighting the audience and receiving a standing ovation.
The message was clear:
Music changes lives, especially for girls who blossom, and taste success, with the extra attention.
The keynote speaker of the evening, author Laura
Schroff, captivated the capacity audience with the riveting story of her singular experience in reaching out to a hungry boy living on the streets of New York. That story ultimately became the book, “An Invisible thread,” which landed on the New York Times bestseller list.
A former advertising executive for major companies, she felt compelled to respond to a boy who told her in 1986 he was hungry. “At first, I walked away, but then I felt some instinct to turn round and go back to him.”
A relationship began with a simple lunch for this youngster whose father was a drug dealer and whose mother was a heroin and crack addict.
“He lived with 11 people in a 12x12 space, and sometimes just went into a closet to escape the chaos,” said Schroff, who ultimately guided the boy to a productive adulthood. There were gasps—and some tears—as Schroff outlined the tale of this young boy initially stuck in a hostile and uncaring world.
She also saluted the BookMates volunteers for giving children at risk the chance for better lives.
Steve Hochman, a devoted Mount Laurel BookMates volunteer and local author, delighted the audience with his talk and video presentation about how he collaborated with a group of enthusiastic youngsters on an illustrated book, “laZy, craZy & amaZing.” Hochman was the recipient of the Special Volunteer Honor recognition.
For BookMates volunteer Ann Simonoff of Cherry Hill, the program has been enormously rewarding.
“Ever since retiring as an attorney in 2006, I have been involved in a number of volunteering stints. I was looking for something as different from practicing law as possible, and I found it last year at BookMates.”
Simonoff read to two little girls in a kindergarten class at the Johnson School in Cherry Hill and relished seeing them enthusiastically loving the books. “It’s so gratifying to know that I have awakened them to the wonderful world of stories that hopefully will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
Sally Zeiberg of Mount Laurel, a busy mother of three, has been a BookMates volunteer since 2009, and at first was concerned about whether she could meet the time commitment. She soon found out that she could—and joyfully would.
“The quick bonding that takes place each week makes me look forward to seeing my special friend every week,” said Zeiberg, now an active member of the BookMates Steering Committee. “I’ll reschedule any conflicts that get in my way!”
Susan Murawczyk, a first grade teacher at the Johnson School, and the BookMates coordinator there for the past 12 years, is keenly aware of how meaningful these reading sessions with youngsters can become. Murawczyk recalls the touching story of a lonely widower who joined the program when he was depressed and isolated.
“That gentleman came every single day he was due, even as he battled serious illness,” Murawczyk said. “He used to tell me that this was the best thing that had happened to him, and that it got him up and out into the world.”
Clearly, the volunteers get at least as much as they give—and many, like Zeiberg, insist that BookMates isn’t only life-changing for the young readers. It also changes the volunteers’’ lives.
“It’s unbelievably heartwarming to see—and hear—what this means to classroom teachers, to kids, and to our amazing volunteers,” said Shevrin. “We’re growing—we’re touching lives— and we’re proud of that!” .