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Building bridges with books

February 12, 2008|SANDY BANKS

Eight years ago, Rebecca Constantino made her first book drop -- delivering a few boxes of discarded volumes from Brentwood Elementary School to a third-grade classroom at Marian Anderson Elementary in Compton.

Brentwood needed to dispose of the books, to make room for new ones in its library. Anderson Elementary hadn't used its library in so long, the door was locked and no one knew where the keys had gone.

Constantino's simple gesture launched a project -- Access Books -- aimed at stocking inner-city schools with enough enjoyable books that kids will read better and read more.

On Saturday, Access Books returned to its roots, delivering 8,000 books -- 28 boxes full -- to Anderson. This time, the gift included a couch, a rocking chair, a reading rug, books for every classroom, plus enough new hardcover volumes to double the size of the school's library.

The visit was a result of a Times story last fall about a fire that destroyed the classroom collection of fifth-grade teacher Jacquie Hundley.

Hundley had spent seven years buying, begging and borrowing books, from Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias to Harry Potter. Each fall she would haul the books to school in her car, and every summer she would take them home and store them in the garage behind her Westlake apartment.

Hundley's garage caught fire last August, just as school was about to start, destroying all but five of her 400 books.

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Since it began in 1999 with that impromptu crosstown delivery, Access Books has provided a million books to more than 100 Southern California campuses. It's still a shoestring operation. Constantino and part-time librarian Erica Vega rely on grants from charities and corporations to buy new hardcovers. They store the books in rented portable trailers, and deliver them in Constantino's ancient truck.

The project links suburban and inner-city campuses.

Middle-class schools host book drives to collect "gently used" volumes. Volunteers from both schools meet to deliver, catalog and organize the books, and paint murals at the receiving school. Alta Vista Elementary School in Redondo Beach collected 3,000 books for Anderson.

"We don't want it to be 'These rich people are going to save these poor people,' " said Constantino, a college professor and the youngest of six children of a single mother. "What we find is the kids paint together, then they go out in the schoolyard and play. When is a kid from Compton going to get together with a kid from Brentwood? Here, they find out they're not so different. They watch the same TV shows, they're interested in the same music," she said.

And before long, they're reading the same books.

Constantino, who earned a doctorate in language, literacy and learning, can reel off statistics about the difference that makes. California is last in the country in funding for school libraries. Eight in 10 schools have no trained, full-time librarian. She studied 40 families in Beverly Hills, Compton and Watts and found the Beverly Hills kids had 400 times the access -- from Amazon.com to neighborhood libraries to their parents' bookcases -- than the children in Compton and Watts.

"You have to know that matters," she said. "You can't learn to love books if you don't have access."

The only thing that stops her from serving more campuses is a shortage of middle-class schools offering to pair up. "I send letters to suburban schools and every private school in town," she said. "But I never hear back. And I don't know why."

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As I drove home from Compton on Saturday, I thought about the work being done quietly in this city to bridge the gap between haves and have-nots. The death last week of LAPD SWAT Officer Randy Simmons -- and the life it revealed -- put that notion on my mind.

Simmons began a ministry called "Glory Kids" 11 years ago, donating his own money and raising more from church members and corporate benefactors to pay for two vans and enough food, clothing and toys to help about 1,000 children a month. He spent his weekends visiting housing projects, taking kids on field trips and talking to them about their problems.

No grand plans launched the ministry, just Simmons' desire to help and a belief that he could make a difference -- the same fuel that started Access Books.

Constantino was a doctorate student at UCLA when she visited Brentwood and Anderson to supervise student teachers. The two schools are about 25 miles apart, but the gap between them, she said, "was as wide as the Grand Canyon."

One school was glad to get rid of their books, the other grateful to receive them. Then the calls started coming in. "Somebody said 'I heard you collect books.' I said, 'Not really, but I'll get them.' And others were calling saying 'I heard you've got books to give.' And it just snowballed. I thought, clearly there's a need. Let's make a connection."

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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