Evan Guillon quickly grabbed a copy of Charlotte's Web, almost jumping with excitement.
"YES! Mrs. Miller read this to us and it got me inspired," the first-grader announced.
Lynn Miller, his teacher at Chester W. Taylor Elementary, nodded approval and Evan hugged his find with a huge smile.
It's hard to say a great benefit came from someone's too-early accidental death, especially when that someone was Susanne Broadbelt, a beloved Pasco County educator. But on Friday, every child at Chester W. Taylor Elementary, Woodland Elementary and West Zephyrhills Elementary wrapped small hands around a good book for summer reading and carried it home for keeps — in memory of Sue, as most knew her.
Sue would have thrilled at watching 2,316 kids excitedly choosing a book for their very own. The giveaway culminated a memorial book drive honoring the retired teacher, who died at age 60 in an Oct. 14 ultralight aircraft accident.
"I know Sue is smiling at all these kids with books," said teacher Mimi Bridges, her voice breaking.
Bridges organized the book drive at West Zephyrhills and was a personal friend of Sue. Her words were echoed by Woodland Elementary principal Kim Poe, who worked alongside Sue one summer as a reading coach.
"I was fortunate to see her passion and to watch Sue with kids, transferring the love of reading to writing," Poe said. "With the book drive, her life has now touched all of these kids."
Sue retired in 2009 after more than 30 years as an educator, most in Pasco County. She returned to schools volunteering and substituting, and was in class a couple of days before her death stunned school staff and community members.
Teachers looked for a way to honor Sue. Putting free books in the hands of kids seemed a good way to keep alive her strong dedication of connecting kids and reading. Kelly Harlow at Chester Taylor spearheaded the book drive, joined by Bridges and media specialist Teresa Partain at Woodland and a host of others. It became a community effort.
Harlow sent an email filling me in on the book drive soon after I returned from Sue's memorial service in Land O'Lakes. I'd stared at slides of a vibrant woman, arms around her small grandchildren, and I struggled to grasp she was gone. We'd been reading specialists together, and at district meetings we'd share pictures of our latest grandchildren and talked about ways to encourage kids to read.
I helped spread the word about the book drive through a Times column in November, and people across the county joined the effort. Dr. Rao Musunuru made a generous donation, and the staff at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point followed his lead. They sent me money to buy books with the help of my good friend and fellow reading specialist Ardis Padgett. We sought the best prices and explained the drive, and sellers contributed big discounts to help the cause. Hundreds of books filled my car, making trips back and forth to Chester Taylor. It seemed the least I could do to honor Sue.
Harlow, Bridges, Partain and other dedicated teachers carried on their classroom duties and collected books, grouping them into reading levels. It went beyond the ordinary teacher day, and even Harlow's husband, William, was called into action, transporting books among the three schools.
Wiregrass Ranch High freshman Lizzie Carr volunteered to help out. She'd spent elementary days at Chester Taylor and remembered Sue. "Mrs. Broadbelt was always encouraging me to read," recalled Lizzie, who mingled with third-graders Friday morning at Chester Taylor, helping them choose books.
The scene was the same Friday morning at all three schools: Kids came to the media center by grade levels at assigned times. Each looked over the hundreds of books spread over many tables and picked out a favorite.
At Chester Taylor, kindergarten students lined up to check out their books from the media center, as they had done all year. When they were told they could keep these books forever, a clamor of excitement erupted. And so it went, class after class.
"The kids were very excited and they were all thanking me," said Partain, adding, "Any time a kid can get a book to call their own, it's very special."
Posters announcing the book giveaway featured a large photo of a beaming Sue Broadbelt. It seemed as if she were watching over the media centers on Friday, still radiating joy at seeing kids with books.