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November 11, 2009 > Hayward Rotarians support literacy

Hayward Rotarians support literacy

By Simon Wong

Five members of Hayward Rotary Club visited Schafer Park Elementary School on November 3 to distribute 64 dictionaries to 3rd graders. This is not a one-off event. Annually, Rotary buys and gives a dictionary, gratis, to every 8 year-old within the Hayward Unified School District (HUSD).

In some homes, there are no books; for some children, this is the first they can call their own. The visitors received a warm welcome on entering the classrooms but the appreciation was evident when they informed the youngsters they could keep the dictionary.

To make them think, teachers and visitors asked the pupils to look up the word "service." Not only did students learn to use the dictionary but they gained a sense of the motivation behind the gift. Students were encouraged to give examples of "service" in their own lives, such as helping to cook, bringing in the groceries..., and were encouraged to share the lexicon with their siblings.

"I want you to use the dictionary this year, and every year, to help you learn so that when you grow up you can return and undertake service projects for your community," Hayward Area Recreation & Park District General Manager Rita Shue asked of the children.

As one of the classes left for the playground, a small boy stopped and thanked Councilwoman Anna May who told him he should thank John Wilma. The young man did so graciously.

Many Rotary clubs fund dictionary projects but local businessman John Wilma is responsible for launching the Dictionary-Literacy Project for Hayward's 3rd Graders with Ken Meirovitz.

Seven years ago, he went in search of two job seekers to whom he had given application forms. They were in the parking lot, in their cars, completing the simple form with help from their wives or girlfriends. Both men were the product of Hayward's education system. Of course, the schools are not entirely culpable for their illiteracy. Domestic life, peer culture and other extraneous factors influence an individual's development.

That same year, he visited a school as a principal-for-the-day and picked up a dictionary, copyrighted 1970. "Computer" was not an entry.

The two experiences spurred him into action. Wilma enlisted the support of fellow Rotarians. He decided to act where he could and approached HUSD which welcomed the dictionary project.

"It was important to give them a large tome, something really tangible. A dictionary is ideal," explained Wilma. "In the first year, some parents returned the book saying they couldn't afford it. We had to insert an explanatory letter in the dictionary, in English and Spanish."

Some teachers now use the dictionary in the classroom and include it as part of homework assignments. Wilma has met 3rd graders who tell him they have been waiting for their dictionary which their sibling received two years previously.

"Four years ago, I sat down with a little girl who, after writing her name on the bookplate, turned to me and told me there were no books in her home. It took a while for me to realize she meant it literally. She clutched her new prized-possession tightly.

"We beg all the money we can. Much comes from within the Rotary Club and the community. The program costs about $20,000 annually. Publisher Houghton Mifflin gives us a pretty good discount and ships the books here," Wilma added.

About 2,000 dictionaries have been distributed annually, as close as possible to the start of the academic year, since the project began. The quantity fluctuates according to school rolls.

"Hayward Rotarians receive hundreds of Thank You notes, some penned in crayon, others word-perfect and some illegible but they all express the same sentiment. Parents, school administrators and teachers send charming letters.

"This program is very satisfying and fun. We hope it has a significant and positive effect on the kids we're serving," concluded Wilma.

For more information, call John Wilma on (510) 881-0106. Donations can be sent to the Dictionary-Literacy Project, PO Box 629, Hayward, CA 94543. Please make checks payable to "The Hayward Rotary Foundation." Contributions to the Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, are tax deductible.

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