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First Book can open up a new chapter in children's lives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 15, 2011 - Natasha Lipovac, lawyer and volunteer, wants people to understand that it's easy to take the benefits of reading and writing for granted.

"It's hard for people who can read and write well to understand the deep personal pain that comes for people who cannot," Lipovac said. "It's hard to relate for someone who knows how to read and write."

When she was in her third year of law school at Saint Louis University, Lipovac became involved with the law clinic and started taking pro bono cases defending juveniles.

"It's amazing to see just how shy these kids are just to write down the name of their street so that I could contact their parents or to sign their name," she said. And that shyness often stems from literacy problems.

Lipovac can empathize with juveniles and those struggling with illiteracy because of what she calls "the tradition of immigrant families, always pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and knowing the importance of education."

Lipovac immigrated from Croatia to the United States with her family when she was 16 years old. She was born in Banja Luka, a part of Bosnia-Herzegovina about an hour and a half from Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. During the Balkan war, her family was displaced to Zadar in Croatia, on the coast, before finally moving to the United States.

Before law school, and after graduating from Webster University with a degree in political science, Lipovac worked in merchandising with Nieman Marcus. She said the fashion merchandising work was fun and creative but ultimately unfulfilling. So, four years after completing her undergraduate degree, she started law school.

"The first week of law school I just felt right at home. I mean, I couldn't believe that I took a break to make sure that's what I wanted, it felt intuitive." She comes from a family of lawyers, her mother, father and sister all practice law.

Lipovac works at SNR Denton in corporate business transactions and mergers and acquisitions, which means she helps businesses buy other companies, expand or downsize.

"I really love my job even though it's not where I though I would be even 10 years ago," Lipovac said.

Her law firm, she said, is committed to social responsibility and emphasizes the importance of pro bono work, which Lipovac appreciates. She brought up a recent discussion she had with her sister about their views of the world.

"Our values haven't changed so much as you've found a different way that you fit as a piece of a puzzle into the world. If you've been raised a certain way, and I'm grateful that our parents have passed on a certain set of values, I think it doesn't matter what you do or where you fit in. You are going to maintain those values and continue down the bigger path of being a responsible global, social citizen," she said.

First Book

Lipovac hopes to use her expertise in working with corporations to aid First Book, a national charity that gives new books to children from poor families.

First Book aims to overcome illiteracy by providing books. The number of books in a family's home correlates with the child's academic achievement, according to the First Book website and "Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations," a report from ScienceDirect.

For Lipovac, it was a no-brainer:

"I jumped on it because I have a special affinity for books and the printed word. What they're doing is amazing -- trying to make sure needy children have access to books and specifically new books. It seems like such a needed and even necessary distinction. Adults certainly read [used books] but when you're a child receiving a new book has value. It's something special; it's something that belongs just to you; you haven't gotten this book that's been lying around that's maybe ratty or has some scribbles on it."

Lipovac said she and a friend in public relations would like to get the word out and reach more corporate sponsors.

"We're trying to talk to corporations and have them donate something like $500 or $1,000, which is really not a huge amount of money, but it makes all the difference in the world," she said.

A Well-kept Secret

Heather Winsby, who has chaired First Book for 10 years, said the St. Louis chapter has grown and become more involved in the community.

"For a long time, we have been the best kept secret in St. Louis. That doesn't help an organization much when you are trying to pursue a mission, however," Winsby said.

The St. Louis local advisory board was created in 1998 and, since that time, has given out 68,000 books. This year, the group received 17 requests for grants for more than $48,000 worth of books, which is larger than what First Book can fill in one year.

The local advisory board participates in such events as the National Council of Jewish Women's back to school event, in which children from poor families "shop" for school supplies, clothes and books. Throughout the year it holds book parties, at which a volunteer from a host organization reads to children and gives out free books.

Recently the group handed out books at a fair at Harris Stowe University.

"Just to see these little kids -- and actually kids of all ages, even teenagers, which is shocking in this day and age with video games and TV, PlayStations, whatever -- to see them seriously light up and go through them and look at the titles, flip through the pages, like I said it's a good cause. It's very meaningful to me," Lipovac said.

Volunteers wanted

The best way to volunteer with First Book is to become a part of the local advisory board, Winsby said.

"There are a lot of different things you can get involved with by being a First Book-St. Louis board member. We are always looking for more people who want to commit their time and energies to getting books in the hands of children. The best board members are those who are willing to do the work and stick around for a bit to see projects through," Winsby said.

Advisory board members are expected to attend four meetings each year, and much of the work they do is behind the scenes. Members coordinate events, do administrative work and look for new donors or recipients.

Currently, the advisory board needs people who can work in public relations and someone to spearhead their largest fundraiser, Penny-A-Page, a read-a-thon in local schools. Students get sponsors to pledge a certain amount of money for every page the student reads.

Lipovac said she would like to get more schools involved in this project, which raised $7,774 in 2010, because it serves the dual purpose of encouraging students from wealthier backgrounds to read, as well as raising money to buy books for poor children.

The first reading week this academic year will be Oct. 31 through Nov. 6, with the second from Feb. 27 through March 4. Schools and classrooms that want to sign up can contact St. Louis First Book at stlouis_mo@firstbook.org. To obtain a grant from the local advisory board, contact grants chair Laura DeWoskin at 314-544-3338 or ldewoskin@lemaychildandfamily.org.

Abby Spudich, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is a summer intern with the Beacon.

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