If you ask 6-year-old Rehma Higginbotham what her favorite book is, she will not only tell you, she will recite it for you.
“Five little monkeys jumping on the bed / One fell off and bumped his head / Momma called the doctor and the doctor said / ‘No more monkeys jumping on the bed, ’” she sings as she colors outside in the Bear Creek neighborhood.
For a little girl who loves to read, the Youth Outreach Bookmobile coming to her neighborhood is an exciting thing. Two Tuesdays a month, the Bookmobile parks on Eletta Boulevard and opens its doors to the kids of Bear Creek, a public housing neighborhood in Columbia.
The purple-and-white 1986 Gerstenslager began coming to the neighborhood five years ago to reach kids who weren’t always able to get to the library. It is the smaller of two buses that provide portable access to library services, and it focuses specifically on the youth of Columbia. Not only does the staff arrive with a van full of hundreds of books, but they also have a literacy-based activity planned for each visit.
Today, the activity is coloring on giant-sized paper. Rehma is drawing a big pink flower growing under a yellow sun. She switches markers frequently, using almost every color in the box.
"I've never made a big picture like this before" Rehma says. She has lived with her family in Bear Creek for two years.
April Karlovit, a staff member on the Daniel Boone Regional Library Outreach Services team, walks around admiring the artwork.
“Well look at this, we’ve got our own art gallery forming here,” Karlovit says to the kids. She has been coming to Bear Creek with the Bookmobile for five years, and she has been with Outreach Services for 12 years.
She is one of six staff members who run the different youth outreach service stops in Columbia. She knows the name of every child who stops by the Bookmobile in the Bear Creek neighborhood.
“When we first started to bring the Bookmobile, parents and adults were a little nervous to let their kids go to this strange van,” she says.
Now, she says, everyone in the neighborhood knows the Bookmobile..
One of the most important things about the service, Karlovit says, is the trust they build with the families of the neighborhood.
Working together with the Columbia Housing Authority, the Outreach team is able to use a meeting room in the neighborhood laundromat. They use the room for literacy activities and keep a shelf in the laundromat stocked with books for anyone to borrow. They update the collection every month.
Phil Steinhaus, director of the Housing Authority, says the Bookmobile has been a positive thing for the neighborhood.
"They have a wonderful and dedicated staff that really cares a lot for our kids," Steinhaus says. "I've seen them go above and beyond the call of duty many times to develop an interest in reading and improve reading skills."
A school bus stops down the road, and kids jump off. After seeing the Bookmobile, about five kids come straight over. There are kids sprawled out in the grass and sidewalk, coloring. A few are onboard the Bookmobile bus, checking out books. An ice cream truck, enticingly playing "Pop Goes the Weasel," makes its way down the street. It looks as if the Bookmobile is about to get upstaged, but most of the kids stay where they are, coloring intently as the ice cream truck drives by.
Inside the Bookmobile, there is a group of kids waiting to check out books. One boy doesn’t have a library card, but that doesn’t mean he is turned away.
“In our system, it takes an adult signature to get a library card,” Karlovit says. “That can’t always happen for one reason or another.”
Karlovit says the number of kids in the neighborhood with library cards has increased significantly since the Bookmobile started coming to Bear Creek. For kids without cards, the Outreach team emphasizes the responsibility of borrowing and returning books.
“If a child wants to check out a book, we don’t want to turn them away,” Karlovit says. Instead, she says, the staff suggest that the child borrow from a shelf of donated books, and they educate the child on "library borrowing etiquette."
A similar program in Missouri operates through the St. Louis County Library. According to the St. Louis County Library Web site, their bookmobile program has been running in that area since 1947, and they currently have 10 running bookmobiles. Other programs around the nation include the High Plains District Library in Colorado and the Pierce County Library System in Washington.
As 5 p.m. nears, Karlovit starts to pack up the bus. Afternoon has faded into evening. Rehma's mom comes to take her home. She rolls up her picture, excited to go hang it up in her room.
Karlovit is part of a team of people that teaches kids the importance of literacy. Often though, she says she ends up learning from them. “We share this hour through art and literacy," she says. "We bear witness to each others lives. I love seeing the incredible gifts these kids have. It’s very precious to see that.”