In the past decade, Jennifer Frances has driven a bus from Tampa to the Navajo Nation several times, driving from one isolated outpost to the next to deliver books to kids at more than a dozen schools across the reservation.
So when Frances, founder of the traveling Bess the Book Bus literacy nonprofit, saw a video on Facebook this spring featuring a Utah third-grade schoolteacher traveling long distances to deliver food and learning packets to children isolating because of the pandemic, she decided it was time to get them another round of reading material.
Frances contacted the teacher, Charlene Poyer (she’d met her on a previous trip), and arranged in April to mail a pallet of 1,500 new picture books and juvenile fiction and nonfiction titles for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade at Montezuma Creek Elementary so Poyer and other teachers could distribute them to all 310 students.
With about 40 percent of her students unable to continue their studies when schools closed in March because of a lack of Internet access, Poyer said she and other teachers thought they were up against a seemingly impossible task: How could they motivate kids to continue to read and learn during the shutdown, when so many lived in isolated expanses of the Navajo Nation and could not participate in Zoom classes?
“It can often be a challenge during normal times,” said Poyer, 42, who is a member of the Navajo Nation and lives in the Red Mesa area, about 30 miles from the school.
“Our students are super-intelligent — many of them are bilingual [also speaking Navajo or Spanish],” she said. “But they lack access to the resources they need to do Zoom classes or communicate online while doing lessons at home during the pandemic.”
The gift of books from Frances came at just the right time, she said, to add some excitement to her students’ daily routines and provide a little relief from the usual math, spelling and vocabulary packets.
“In this area where we live, we have one trading post and one store, one post office, a school and a health clinic,” Poyer said. “There is no place to buy a book. So the surprise of receiving these books is the best thing that could have happened for our children right now.”
Because of the pandemic, Frances knew she wouldn’t be able to deliver books through her preferred method, by driving across the country and stopping in isolated towns or cities along the way to hand out books to children in need.
“The first time I went to Navajo Nation in 2010 with my sister, we were put up for several nights in a hogan and had fry bread for the first time,” recalled Frances, 49, explaining that she stayed in a typical Navajo one-room dwelling.
It was 2003 when Frances started Bess the Book Bus (named after her grandmother Bess O’Keefe), inspired by memories of checking out books in a bookmobile that stopped every three weeks in the rural area where she grew up outside of Freeport, Fla. Her nonprofit is now funded through a combination of grants, personal donations and corporate sponsorships.
“We didn’t have a lot of money in my family, and the nearest library was 28 miles away,” she said. “We couldn’t always get there because we couldn’t afford the gas, so my sister and I were thrilled when my mom learned about the bookmobile. When I was in the sixth grade, they’d let me check out as many of my favorite Stephen King books as I wanted.”
The book bus started when Frances, a former apartment manager, initially drove a Volkswagen bus to deliver milk crates loaded with books donated by friends and relatives to kids throughout the Florida panhandle.
“I had no idea where this would go, but it quickly became successful and everyone wanted to share their extra books,” she said.
Today, all of the books donated to her program are new, with many coming from publishers who have hundreds of extra titles to give away, said Frances, who has since given away 850,000 books in 48 states and has driven enough miles to wear out five buses.
Many of those miles were put on her current Mercedes-Benz minibus by traveling to and from the sweeping red-rock vistas of the Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation.
“Everything about that part of the country is beautiful — the scenery and the people,” she said.
Poyer said the books make a big difference for the kids.
“We've been able to give each child four or five books this time,” she said. “Some of the kids are living in quarantine with their families, so we put on masks and delivered the books with care packages filled with things that people really need, like food, diapers and cleaning supplies.”
Poyer and other Navajo Nation teachers cover 3,000 square miles on about 10 bus routes to deliver the supplies.
“That’s why I made that video that Jen saw,” Poyer said. “I wanted people to see the situation we’re dealing with out here as we try to get our kids what they need to learn at home.”
The kindness is appreciated by Montezuma Creek students and their parents.
“Books have a special place in our heart and in our home,” said Cherish Harvey, the mother of two girls, ages 5 and 6. “These kind book donations from Bess the Book Bus have enhanced my daughters’ speech capabilities and developed their imagination and curiosity.”
For Tatem Eskee, 10, reading to her little brother has helped her to develop her vocabulary skills, she said.
“I like it when stories that have no pictures make you imagine the characters and what’s going on in the story,” the fourth-grader said.
Frances said it will be well worth another round trip of 4,042 miles to deliver a new load of books to Navajo Nation kids once the pandemic has ended.
“We need to give them what they need to be successful,” she said. “It’s addicting to hand a child a brand-new book and see that child form a long-lasting relationship with reading.”
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