Instead of playing catchy, familiar tunes through a speaker system attached to the ceiling, the sides of the vehicles are decorated with cartoon images of superheroes in the shape of an owl and a fox. And the trucks aren’t full of frozen treats, but rather a collection of books, electronics, and other items that can help kids learn.
Kids tend to greet Harris County Public Library’s “Curiosity Cruisers” as if it were an ice cream truck, according to Edward Melton, executive director of the Houston Area Library System.
“When kids see a cruiser coming into their community, they start running for it,” Milton said. “They’re excited about it. They’re excited about reading and getting a book they can take home.”
Melton said the library’s mobile outreach program has distributed more than 69,000 books to more than 55,000 children in the Houston area since its inception in 2017, with a focus on reaching underserved and low-income parts of the area where there are no public libraries nearby. The Curiosity Cruisers fleet has gradually expanded as the program becomes more popular, with a fourth batch launching next week.
Ford’s latest Transit truck, outfitted and donated by the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation with financial support from local energy company Oxy, philanthropic sponsors and other companies, will enable the Mobile Library Program to make 12 additional stops per month. Each of its trucks visit 3-4 locations per week, according to the library’s director of outreach Brian Kratish, who said they stop at places like schools, parks, community centers, apartment complexes and literary-themed events.
Children up to 18 years of age can take one book home at each visit while engaging with other on-site learning materials such as laptops, tablets, 3D printers, and curriculum kits that teach robotics, electrical circuits, coding, and other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In many cases, cruisers visit the same sites once a week for 8-10 weeks, in part to provide consistent educational programming and also to allow children to build a collection of books that they can use to create their own home libraries.
“It’s a huge deal,” Milton said of adding a fourth cruiser. “There is a huge need for literary services in Harris County. Even with our efforts, it really is like a drop in a bucket. There is a lot of work to be done in this area, making sure children are ready for school and reading at (grade) level. So The more vehicles we can have, the greater our impact.”
The Curiosity Cruisers program was the brainchild of the Ladies Literacy League, an auxiliary volunteer organization of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. Julie Fink, president and CEO of the foundation, said the idea was to boost reading and STEM skills while helping to close educational gaps in communities without libraries, even in schools.
Three out of 10 Houston kids fail to meet a minimum reading standard by the end of third grade on the latest statewide STAAR test, according to Fink. She also said that research shows that if children do not read proficiently by the end of third grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of school than their peers.
The foundation has invested more than $1.5 million in Curiosity Cruisers, according to Fink, who said a variety of companies and charitable organizations have donated money to the initiative, which also benefits from funds raised at the annual Power of Literacy Luncheon hosted by the League of Women for Literacy. Materials for the new cruiser were purchased with donations from Crown Castle, PwC, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
“Our vision is for Houston to be a city full of readers,” Fink said. “We think Curiosity Cruisers is just a great way to help make that possible.”
Milton said the books available on Curiosity Cruisers are curated for interest and age-appropriateness and serve a range of grade levels. Among the titles, according to Karatish, are “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” by Jeff Kinney, “Dog Man” by Duff Bilkey, and “I Survived” by Lauren Tarchis.
Kratish said the mobile program — which features Owlbotron and Northtale the fox as superhero mascots — addresses a need while helping educate community members about the services offered by the Harris County Public Library. It has 26 sub-locations across the region.
“We meet many children and families who want to go to the library, but can’t get to a library near them,” Kratice said. “With Curiosity Cruisers, it’s more like a library coming to them.”
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