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Finding a way to help Ukrainian kids, through books

A lesson in empathy, philanthropy

Lowell — At Murray Lake Elementary, all classrooms are encouraged to pair up with either an older or younger class as “Book Buddies” – peers who get together weekly to practice and share the love of reading. Now, one Book Buddies pair is working together to share that love with Ukrainian children who have become refugees. 

Fourth-graders in Christina Smith’s class and second-graders in Emily Cannon’s class together have raised more than $550 to send books to children who have had to flee their homes due to the war in Ukraine. They’ve made posters, approached family members, done extra chores, spoken about the project during daily school announcements and visited other classrooms to give presentations on why they are raising money for the cause. 

“During passing periods I noticed that some kids were talking about (the war in Ukraine) and they seemed to have questions,” Cannon said. “Second-graders, developmentally, are just starting to be able to consider another person’s point of view. And so we talked about how that would feel, if you were a kid who had to leave their home, and that really got them thinking.”

These second- and fourth-grade Book Buddies raised money to send books to Ukrainian refugee children

Smith’s fourth-graders were feeling the same way, and asking similar questions. As the war in Ukraine began, they were in a reading unit on historical fiction and began to notice some parallels to the wars mentioned in their books. 

“I told them that one way to handle the stress of worrying about other people is to find a way to help,” Cannon said. “That can make you feel like you’re doing a little something to make the situation better. And they really embraced the idea.”

Working together with their Book Buddies classroom partner felt like a natural next step, both teachers said. The fourth- and second-graders get together every Wednesday to read and talk about the books they’ve read. Each student is paired up with a partner from the other grade, so those relationships were already formed. 

‘Second-graders, developmentally, are just starting to be able to consider another person’s point of view. And so we talked about how that would feel, if you were a kid who had to leave their home, and that really got them thinking.’

– Murray Lake teacher Emily Cannon

The idea behind Book Buddies is to help students practice and keep developing their skills of reading aloud to someone else. The experience has reciprocal benefits, Smith said: second-graders are eager to practice and show off their reading ability to someone older, and fourth-graders get to act as mentors while still practicing their own skills. 

“Some of the second-graders are pretty good readers, so I feel like it pushes my kids to be even better, because they want to be kind of like ‘the big dog’ in the pair, which is really cute,” said Smith. “And I love that the second-graders have someone to support them, and they can see what reading is going to be like when you get older.”

Book Buddies Leah Graham, left, fourth grade, and Paisley Gallup, second grade, read a book together

Why Books?

Early on, it became clear that these Book Buddies wanted to focus their efforts on sending books to young refugees. They’re working with the Universal Reading Foundation, which donates one book with every $5 they receive. 

“For the Ukrainian kids that had to escape their country to go to Poland, they need books to read, but the books there are only in Polish,” explained fourth-grader August Weston. “So we’re raising money to buy Ukrainian books because it will make kids happy. They’ll have something to read and that will make them laugh. It feels really good because you know you’re going to make somebody’s day.”

Books may not seem like a priority during wartime when people are in need of medical care, food and shelter, Cannon said, but when her students looked at how they could help, they wanted to do something more personal.

“Books are so powerful. They can provide that moment of peace, even if it’s just five minutes,” Cannon said. “And hopefully, those (Ukrainian) kids realize that somebody from halfway across the world was thinking of them, and that might be enough to get them through a day.”

Added Smith: “My kids were talking about how much it stinks that these kids find themselves in new countries and don’t speak the language. They don’t know what’s going on. A book can help make you feel just a little bit more comfortable, especially a book in your language.”

Second-grader Grant Patten, left, practices reading to his Book Buddy, fourth-grader Dallas Eddy

Fourth-grader Brynlee Burgnon felt so strongly about the project that she was willing to make a presentation to another class about the fundraiser and why they were doing it — a feat she described as “a little scary.” Brynlee and her Book Buddy, Eleanor, have been reading together all year and worked together to make hallway posters about the fundraiser as well. 

“If I was (a refugee), I would probably feel, like, super scared,” said Brynlee. “Especially if I was in a home with, like, a stranger, not knowing where the rest of my family was or maybe where my teacher or classmates were. And I think I would be really grateful to have a book to read, because reading is really relaxing and they can stop thinking about everything else that’s happening in their country. 

“It makes me feel really good and happy that we were able to raise all the money that we did.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter (covering Cedar Springs, Grandville, Lowell and Rockford), editor, copy editor and social media manager. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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