East Grand Rapids – It was lunchtime recess at Breton Downs Elementary School, and a handful of students had decided to skip the outdoor option and spend time in the Learning Commons instead.
There, in a brightly lit and cheerfully decorated space, they perused new books, chatted with one another about their finds and read quietly on a variety of comfortable furniture options.
Nearby, Sarah Webber, the lead parent volunteer in the Learning Commons, looked on with a pleased smile.
She committed to the position in 2020 when her daughter was in kindergarten, and soon after, COVID derailed much of what she had hoped to do as part of her new duties, making 2021-22 the first year she has been able to really dive into her role.
But this year she has made up for lost time. She is at the Learning Commons five days a week from drop-off in the morning to pick-up in the afternoon, and her labors have made a big difference for Breton Downs and its staff and students.
Replenishing the Shelves
Webber jokingly call herself a “faux-brarian,” since her education and work background is as a wildlife biologist, but that title sells short her immense organizational skills.
This school year she has replenished the Learning Common shelves with hundreds of new books, thanks to a grant from the East Grand Rapids Schools Foundation and proceeds from a December book fair.
“Our library inventory was impacted by a year of no one overseeing the Learning Commons and almost two years of no new book purchases,” she said.
Webber also works to support teachers and their students when they are writing research papers, including helping students learn how to properly cite a source and navigate the catalog so they can find information on their topic.
‘There’s space to relax. And Mrs. Webber, she is the best. She provides us with a bunch of books and good ideas about what to read.’– Isla Hilbert, fifth-grader
She also is organizing the spring Scholastic Book Fair after a successful winter fair raised enough Scholastic dollars to purchase 100 new books for the Learning Commons and 600 for classrooms.
Oh, and she coordinates a team of more than 50 parent and grandparent volunteers.
“I don’t know what I would do without them,” Webber said. “This is one of the reasons I love Michigan. There is such a strong sense of community, and everyone is so willing to help however they can.”
She called out school administrative assistants, Lisa Rogers and Ann Sheridan, IT Specialist Mike Tietz, and middle school librarian Carol Dills.
“I always knew we had amazing teachers and staff, but I don’t think I had a feel for just how amazing they are. And it doesn’t stop with just the teachers; from the administration to administrative assistance to education specialists, absolutely everyone seems to have been born to do this job.”
Principal, Students Appreciate Webber
Breton Downs Principal Caroline Cannon is equally effusive about Webber.
“Sarah can be found checking in and reshelving books, adding barcodes to books, researching the latest and newest titles and recently, she helped organize our March Book Madness assembly,” Cannon said. “We are so fortunate to have Sarah leading the charge. She has a passion and love for books.”
Students who know Webber say the same.
Fifth-grader Isla Hilbert spoke in glowing terms about both Webber and the Learning Commons.
“I like how open it is in here,” she said, looking around her generous surroundings. “There’s space to relax. And Mrs. Webber, she is the best. She provides us with a bunch of books and good ideas about what to read.”
Fellow fifth-grader Julia Teegardin wholeheartedly agreed. She showed a visitor a large, colorful sheet – something Webber had spotted in a New York Times story and thought would be a great tool for the Learning Commons. It includes a variety of questions that she and Webber worked through together to find Julia the perfect book.
“We took our own trails,” Julia explained. “So, it says ‘I’m so bored,’ and if you choose that, then you get the next option, ‘Entertain me please,’ and you choose that, and you just keep going and it helps you find the book you want.”
For her, that book, based on her decisions, was “Keeping It Real” by Paula Chase, and Julia was thoroughly enjoying it, she said.
That’s what it’s all about for Webber.
“There is nothing better than seeing students get excited when they find books they didn’t know we had in the library,” she said.
A Minnesota native who spent the last two decades in Florida, Webber said neither she nor her husband had ever been to Michigan before moving to East Grand Rapids four years ago for work.
“We love it here and can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she said.