A white van travels though the Spanish Cove apartment complex in North St. Louis County. On top of the vehicle a loud speaker blasts classic ice cream truck tunes. The van pulls over on the side of the road. The driver flings open the doors to reveal a wide selection of … books.
The St. Louis County Library’s Sweet Reads program provides a traveling collection books to Spanish Lake residents during the summer. This is the program’s second year.
Starting this fall, however, the program will run year long.
Colleen Hall, manager of outreach services for the St. Louis County Library, says the program grew out a partnership with the Hazelwood School District.
“Hazelwood leaders pointed out that one of their biggest things was summer slide. We (the library) do the big summer reading program, but that doesn't really help if the kids don't have access to books.”
Spanish Lake is a library desert. Hall says that, a few library branches are near the community, but reliable transportation makes traveling to these branches a challenge.
“It’s a really an underserved population as far as the library goes. We wanted to provide a service where there wasn't any,” Hall said.
In a brainstorm session last summer, Hall’s team came up with the idea for Sweet Reads.
The group took two mini-vans and loaded them with deleted and donated books. They purchased a sound system to play ice cream music and drove through Spanish Lake neighborhoods during June and July.
This summer, the program expanded. Two library staff members go out five days a week to different Spanish Lake apartment complexes.
Susan Clary-Cupini, head of the Sweet Reads program, says the extended summer hours allowed them to go neighborhood to neighborhood and really bring the library door to door.
“Children know exactly when we are coming,” Clary-Cupini said. “They will rearrange their swim schedule, camp schedule because they can’t miss the day when the Sweet Reads program comes. We’ve had far more individuals take advantage of the program than we ever thought imaginable.”
This summer in June and July alone, the program circulated just under 10,000 items.
A demand for books
On a Wednesday afternoon, I followed the Sweet Reads truck to its stop at the Spanish Cove Apartment complex in Spanish Lake. As soon as the van was parked and open, kids begin to trickle in from all around the neighborhood. Some greet the volunteers with hugs, others head straight for the books.
While many in the neighborhood seem familiar with the program, new people are discovering it every week.
Lavonda Logwood was walking through the Spanish Cove complex with her 2 year old, Lei’onna Hawthorne, when she passed by the Sweet Reads van.
“Are these books free?” she asked.
Soon she and Lei’onne joined the fray searching for books about animals.
Others like Tawanda Thomas and her three daughters have come to pick out books every week this summer.
Tawanda says her kids think it is better than going to the park, and she has the chance to pick out some books as well.
“I’ve been reading new books that I’ve never read before,’ Thomas said. “I’ve been expanding into novels.”
Some kids come and take stacks and stacks of books. Others come looking for one in particular. Legos, Star Wars and Barbie seem to be popular requests.
The program runs on the honor system. You can take the books and return them or you can keep them. You don’t have to have a library card to pick out books.
The payoff? “The thrill on these children's faces … As the summer has gone along, I’ve got a lot more hugs and a lot more thank-yous from both the kids and the parents and it just makes it all worthwhile, “says Clary-Cupini.
Year round services
This week marked Sweet Reads last stop at Spanish Cove, but this fall the program will continue to stop at centers around Spanish Lake.
“Starting in the fall, about the end of August we are going to be doing more community stops where we will be in locations throughout Spanish Lake in high traffic areas,” Clary-Cupini says. “We will have Sweet Read materials that don't require (children or adults) to check it out."
The expansion includes a bookmobile, which will be solely dedicated to the Spanish Lake community. The library is hoping to switch from vans to the bookmobile by the end of this year.
With the bookmobile, area resident will be able to sign up for library cards and check out library materials, as well as Sweet Reads materials.
Colleen Hall, manager of outreach services, says the mobile unit will allow the county library to best serve the community.
“Transportation is a really persistent challenge for people there, so if a branch were to be located somewhere it would still not be able to serve everyone because of the geography of the area. It would still not be in walking distance for a lot of people. So the mobile unit in that area seems to make a lot of sense,” Hall said.
The exact stops for the Sweet Reads continued programing have not yet been determined. Services will start on Aug. 25.