BROOKSVILLE — "I don't like stuffed animals. I don't like reading. I don't like writing. I only like Hot Wheels," Eastside Elementary School first-grader Daniel Leonard, 7, said emphatically. Luckily, Annette Tolbert heard about this.
Tolbert, 70, is the Brooksville Women's Club education leader and knew just what to do to change Daniel's attitude about reading and writing.
She and club members Laura Cummings, 62, and Ronnie Parry, 72, were at the school recently as part of the club's reading and writing encouragement effort, Book Bag Buddies. It was a Monday, the day the bags go out.
"We will turn him on somehow," she said about Daniel. "There will be a Hot Wheels book or car or something in his next bag."
This school year, club members took donated tote bags, decorated them and filled them with donated books, pencils, notebooks and stuffed animals. The bags are given to the children on Mondays.
The children read the books to their stuffed animals or book buddies. Then they are encouraged to write about the books. The bags are returned on Thursdays, and the next Monday the children get different bags with different books and different buddies.
The club began with first-graders and is expanding to kindergarten and second and third grades.
"We want to enhance the reading and writing program here at Eastside. We are working with the reading coach," Michelle Barnes, Tolbert said.
"The object of the stuffed animals is to give them a buddy to read to and to write about when it's visiting their homes," she said. "A lot of the children don't have any books at home, so this puts books into the home."
Tolbert loves doing this. She was a teacher for 38 years before she retired. "Once a teacher, always a teacher," said fellow club member Cummings.
Tolbert recalled the first Thursday the children returned with their bags. Getting off the bus and seeing her, she recalled the children saying, "Let me read what I wrote! Let me read what I wrote!"
"I dropped to my knees and there we were," she said, sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. They were reading to her and to each other, she remembered. "And that's one of the goals."
"To be excited about reading," Parry clarified.
There is another lesson besides reading and writing. "We're also trying to reach responsibility," Tolbert said. Students who don't return their bags on the allotted day do not get new ones.
When the children return the bags, they return what they have written in the notebooks as well. This way children see what other students wrote, providing yet another reading opportunity and, perhaps, an inspiration to write.
Adrianna Walker, 6, is one of Daniel's classmates and a Book Bag Buddy fan. "I like to read with it," she said. "I like doing (writing) with my buddy, too."
Aleana May, 6, also likes the bags. "I get excited about my Book Bag Buddy, getting it home, and I really like it."
Their teacher, Sally Fernsel, 45, appreciates what the women's club has done right along with the children. "I love the Book Bag Buddies," she said. "They are interactive. They get parents involved. The children enjoy the stuffed animals. It's a friend, and it has improved their writing," she said.
Coming to the school each week and checking the bags to be sure they have all the materials they should have is a big commitment for Tolbert and the members who help her. Why does she do it?
"I always taught on the wrong side of the tracks," she said. "I saw children begging for books and begging for the opportunity to better themselves, and I thought this was one way for them to have this opportunity and have fun with it. I just love to see the smiles on their faces."