She remembers the moment of her epiphany.
She was a college student surveying local campuses for her dissertation on school libraries. As she walked the halls of a Brentwood elementary, her eye was drawn to a collection of student-made posters, marking the semester's 100th day.
Almost every one was decorated with food . . . hundreds of Cheerios and kidney beans and pieces of macaroni, glued to posters to tally the days.
"And I thought about the school in Watts that I'd just come from, and how the children there would never dream of using food to make an art project," recalled Rebecca Constantino.
"And I realized that the gap between these two communities was as wide as the Grand Canyon."
With serendipity, her chance to help narrow that gap came later that day, when she learned that the Brentwood school had hundreds of books to dispose of, to make way for new ones in its library.
She loaded the discards in the back of her car and ferried them down to the Watts school she'd left, to stock its beleaguered library.
And Project Access Books was born.
There are 1,040 students--all of them so poor, they qualify for free lunches--at South Gate's Independence Elementary.
The 2-year-old campus is pleasant enough, with air-conditioning, bright lights, new playground equipment . . . and less than one library book for every student.
The children are not allowed to take books home--there are not enough to go around. So reading for pleasure is confined to one 40-minute library visit every two weeks.
Is it any wonder, Constantino says, that our children are having trouble learning to read?
"The best predictor of reading achievement is the number of books you have available to you," she says. Yet California ranks last in the nation in its financial support for school libraries.
The average school library nationwide is stocked with 18 books per student. In California, our libraries average 13. In Los Angeles, the average is only five . . . and even that fails to reflect the inequities between suburban schools and those in the inner city.
Research shows that children in poor neighborhoods have fewer books available in their homes, schools and public libraries combined than affluent children have in just their homes.
"The whole debate over [whether to teach reading using] phonics or whole language should be overshadowed by the fact that too many kids have nothing to read," Constantino says.
That will change at Independence next week, when Constantino delivers 3,000 books donated by Santa Monica's Canyon Elementary. And a book drive underway at Carver Elementary in San Marino will produce another 2,000 volumes for Queen Anne Place Elementary in the Miracle Mile area of Los Angeles, where the entire library collection was destroyed last year by rain.
In the three years since Constantino made her first impromptu delivery, Access Books has funneled more than 12,000 books to inner-city school libraries.
"Kids on the Westside, they want a book, they go to Amazon.com," she says. "But I meet children in Watts every day who have never owned a book in their lives, whose eyes light up at the prospect of having just one book of their own."
A self-described "odd child," Constantino grew up in Reno, the youngest of six children raised by a single mother who taught math at the local university.
"I never wore anything that wasn't a hand-me-down," she recalls. "We bought all our clothes at garage sales and thrift stores. But we always had books, and they were my escape. And what I read has influenced every adventure I've ever tried to take."
Those adventures have included three years in Paris, one in Israel, a stint working for the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C., and a year teaching literacy in the black South African township of Soweto.
In between, she earned a master's in teaching English as a second language and a doctorate in language, literacy and learning. She currently conducts teacher training workshops for local school districts and runs Access Books from her home, soliciting donations from friends and school officials she meets.
"It's a total volunteer operation," she says. "No one gets paid a penny, and whatever it costs comes out of my pocket."
She does it because she remembers the joy that books brought her . . . and because she remembers the little boy at the first school she visited, who cried when he was told he could keep only one from a pile of donated books.
"It was heartbreaking to watch," she said. "He kept saying, 'I can't decide, I can't decide.' I finally whispered, 'Just take all three.' And I'll never forget the look on his face."
Reading, she believes, "should be an inalienable right."
"If you take away poverty as a predictor, the state of the school library is the best indicator of literacy, reading achievement, success in school.
"I can't possibly take away poverty. . . . But I can do something about the libraries in our children's schools."
And so can we.
* You can reach Access Books by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (310) 312-1390. Constantino is setting up a Web site to link schools at http://www.accessbooks.net.