JOPLIN — Kansas City librarian April Roy wanted to help after she heard that a tornado had devastated Joplin schools, including blowing away schoolbooks in some of the city's elementary schools.
It took a while to figure it out, but Roy eventually came up with an innovative idea to help students at the schools replace their reading material. It's a project called "Turning the Page: Building a Community of Readers."
Roy and book store owner Pete Cowdin decided to bring individual 50-book "libraries" to a number of needy classrooms. And there were plenty of those classrooms.
The May 22 tornado wiped out 54 percent of the Joplin school district's square footage. Irving Elementary School, home to 280 students, was destroyed. Emerson Elementary School, with 230 students, wasn't demolished, but it wasn't considered practical to repair it. The schools serve mostly low-income families.
"They were the heart and soul of their neighborhood communities, so it was quite a blow," Superintendent C.J. Huff said.
Roy, youth services manager at the Country Club Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library, and Cowdin, co-owner of Reading Reptile in Brookside, started to organize. Cowdin approached the Kansas City Woodworkers' Guild, where members agreed to build the bookcases, The Kansas City Star reported.
One of Roy's friends at Hallmark solicited artists at the company and around town to decorate the bookcases.
The volunteers will build 22 bookcases on wheels, each opening like a book, with three shelves on each side and stocked with 50 new books.
This fall, Irving students are attending school in a formerly mothballed building. Emerson students are in a building made available by the merging of two other schools.
"These classrooms lost everything," Roy said. "I was thinking some small bookcases, but the design that emerged is amazing. They will actually look like a book."
The prototype was completed recently, and guild members started work last week on the other 21 bookcases, which will each be 31 inches wide and 42 inches tall.
The craftsmen are volunteering their time, said guild member Jim Stuart, who along with Gary Creek built the prototype. As many as 30 guild members will work on the project. Metro Hardwoods in Independence is providing the lumber.
The bookcases will be filled with books appropriate for each grade, and the decorative painting on the bookcases will reflect each grade level, said Mark Spencer, a Hallmark creative resources manager. About 20 artists will volunteer their time. Spencer painted the first case for a kindergarten class to look like a giant alphabet book.
Fifty books for each of 22 cases equals 1,100 books, and Roy and Cowdin wanted them to be new ones.
To raise money, Cowdin recruited child authors Jon Scieszka, author of "The Stinky Cheese Man" and "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs," for a fundraising event on Monday. Then he recruited Brian Selznick, Caldecott Medal winner for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," for events on Oct. 5 and 6. Selznick has a new illustrated novel, "Wonderstruck."
Cowdin estimates that about $12,000 is needed: $8,800 in books, $2,700 for wood and hardware and $550 to transport the bookcases to Joplin.
Roy and Cowdin see it as an opportunity to provide young Joplin students not only with books and bookcases but also with the gift of reading and learning.
"It's very simple on one level but very meaningful on another," Cowdin said.