An old school bus, painted blue, pulls up alongside a wooden fence around a sprawling mobile home park in Garden City. It’s the Garden City library’s Bells For Books bus. All day in the summer and in afternoons during the school year, it goes to some of the Treasure Valley’s poorest neighborhoods. The idea is that even though this town, almost entirely surrounded by Boise, is only four miles long it has a lot of kids who can’t get to the library.
Driver and program coordinator Michael Zohner opens the door revealing shelves of books from floor to ceiling. It looks like a typical bookmobile. But Zohner says there are some things that set this one apart. For starters kids don’t need a library card to check out books.
“There’s no fines,” Zohner says. “Some books are returned up to a year later. Some never come back. The idea is the books are getting into the children’s hands and they can read.”
Zohner says they do give prizes for returning books to help kids get into the habit.
Zohner sets out signs around the bus warning drivers to watch out for children. He climbs back in and hits play on a CD of Disney songs and a loudspeaker on top of the bus blares "Hi Ho" from Snow White.
A skinny girl comes tearing around the corner of the fence and sprints to the bus, her dark hair streaming. Once on the bus she gets an iPad and sits on the floor. She’s 11-years-old and says Wednesday is her favorite day after school because that’s when the bus comes to her neighborhood. She says after she’s done playing a computer game, she’ll take home a book from one of her favorite series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Other children come at a more leisurely pace. Some stop to ring the ancient looking cowbells mounted to the side of the bus. Those give the “Bells for Books” program its official name.
But Dee Gore says the kids just call it “the big blue bus.” Gore is president of the Garden City Library Foundation. She’s volunteering on the big blue bus today handing out the snack that each kid gets.
Gore explains that a pair of retired teachers started going around to Garden City neighborhoods in 1994 giving away books. They’d ring the bells now on the bus to let kids know they were there. The library took over the program a few years later and bought the bus a few years after that. The CD and the loudspeaker now do the bells’ old job.
Gore doesn’t like to say the program is about addressing poverty. She says it’s about getting kids reading. But poverty is a consideration.
“The areas of town we are going to right now, some of them are, maybe a little bit lower income,” Gore says. “And, I think it’s important that we make sure those children are getting a little extra time with books.”
Garden City is one of the poorest places in the Boise metro area. More than half of the households in the part of town where Bells for Books spends most of its time are below the federal poverty line for a family of four.
Tara Evens puts a Band-Aid from a first aid kit on a girl’s skinned knee. Evens is the Bells for Books assistant. She says her favorite part of working on the bus is getting to know the kids.
“I get to hear lots of stories,” Evens says. “Whatever is going on in the kids’ lives they’ll start talking about it. Like she’s [the girl with the skinned knee] having her tonsils out tomorrow.”
Evens and Zohner seem to know all the children by name. Zohner says most of the kids come every week.
After about 40 minutes Zohner fires up the engine. The bus is loud when it’s running. The shelves and cabinets vibrate and give the impression the whole thing is going to shake apart. Evans gives a report for the stop.
“There were 18 kids,” she says. “Nine of them actually checked out books. Twelve of them used the iPads. Three of them colored pictures while they were here. They all got snacks.”
As he drives this bus full of books, Zohner says the iPads have become a big draw. He says some kids do their homework on them, some play games, some watch music videos on YouTube.
“I’ll ask the children, ‘Is that a good song?’” Zohner says. “And if it’s not, the ones around them will say, ‘no it’s not, no it’s not. Make them put it away.’ They’re pretty good to monitor themselves.”
Volunteer Dee Gore says a lot of the kids don’t have access to computers at home so providing the iPads is just as important as the books.
“I think the children are going to have to be knowledgeable about that any way they can,” Gore says. “And they love to play on it. It’s the future and I think we have to make sure we’re talking to that.”
The bus’s next stop is another mobile home park. Seven-year-old Brissia gets on with her mom. Brissia says they come to the bus every week.
“Because I love to read,” she says. “I like to read about a lot of things.”
She especially likes science. Her favorite book is called My Body.
“[It] show[s] us our stuff that we got in our body,” Brissia explains.
This stop is a lot like the first. About 20 kids and one parent come aboard. They play with computers, get books, eat a snack and head home. Then the bus heads on to its third and final stop before making its way back to the Garden City library for the night.
The Bells for Books program costs about $30,000 dollars a year to run. The money comes from donations - most from local foundations. The library says the bus serves about 1,000 kids each year. This fall and winter the bus will be out Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays making three or four stops each afternoon.
Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam
Copyright Boise State Public Radio