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Robert Behr looks over some of the books he has collected to hand out to preschoolers all over the region.

One Man's Mission: A Book For Every Child

By Rebecca DravisiBerkshires Staff
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The Northern Berkshire Santa Fund is teaming up with Robert Behr to put a book in the bag of every child the Fund serves this Christmas. To help with this effort, you can donate money online, or donate gently used children's books for all ages in several locations: in North Adams at the office at 102 Main St. or the Friendship Center at 45 Eagle St. or in Williamstown at the First Congregational Church (side door) at 906 Main St.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — When Robert Behr retired from his Williams College job two years ago, he knew he wasn't going to be content just sitting around. So he agreed to volunteer at the Friendship Center food pantry in North Adams -- and quickly found a unique way to contribute.

Before taking a job at Williams, Behr worked for 22 years as a high school teacher. During those years, he came to realize the importance of reading to the lives of children -- especially to very young children whose brains and language skills are still forming. So after hearing a news story on NPR about the importance of reading to children from birth, when he he started volunteering at the food pantry and saw parents come in with young children, he made it a mission to put a book in the hands of all of these children.

"I have a Ping-Pong table full of boxes of books," Behr said while preparing for a recent volunteer shift at the food pantry on Eagle Street in North Adams.

Behr collects books from many sources; personal donations and library book sales are two favorites. He makes sure the books are in good condition, performing minor repairs as needed with tape and markers to make the books look their best. And then he hands them out -- not only to families at the food pantry, but also to families sheltering at the Louison House and in partnership with area preschools such as the Williamstown Community Preschool and the Oak Hill Children's Center in Pownal, Vt.

"What's important is the books have visual content," he said. "So the books have to have lots of pictures."

That's because research shows that even from very young ages, children soak in the vocabulary and language skills that books help teach, especially when parents take the initiative to make reading a more interactive experience by encouraging age-appropriate discussion about the pictures and themes.

"In an era of high-stakes testing and education reforms and revolutions, research has repeatedly proved that one simple parenting technique is among the most effective. Children who are read aloud to by parents get a head start in language and literacy skills and go to school better prepared," reads part of the website "Read Aloud for 15 Minutes," a national nonprofit organization that Behr has partnered with to get information and assistance. (In addition to the books, he also hands out a laminated card that reminds parents why it is important to read.)

Behr said he gets a lot of positive feedback at the food pantry from parents who are regular cusomers. He often hears, "We already have the card, but we'll take the book," from clients who want more books for their children. As for a long-term societal change, Behr acknowledges that it will take time to break the cycle of poverty.

"It's a gradual process," he said.

Still, in the meantime, he has one message to parents of babies, toddlers and preschoolers who want to help their children get a good start in life.

"You are your child's most important teacher," he said. "You could read them the sports page and it would be beneficial."

Tags: books,   good news,   reading,   santa fund,   

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