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Read Bama Read: Alabama gymnastics coach gives back to community

Dana Duckworth and Donna Benjamin presented Verner Elementary with a $5,000 for new library books. CW | Terrin Waack

Terrin Waack

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On a Sunday evening almost five years ago, Donna Benjamin walked out into her backyard and sat down on a step. She was on the phone with Dana Duckworth, the current University of Alabama gymnastics coach, brainstorming ideas of what they could do to help out, to make a difference, because the day before – April 27, 2011 – disaster struck Tuscaloosa as a tornado left destruction in its wake.

Benjamin and Duckworth had already been out in the community with many others, handing out water, cutting down trees and doing all that they could, but once the sun went down, the two didn’t want to stop, but there was only so much they could do themselves about the damages.

“We wanted to leave a long-term impact,” Duckworth said. “We knew the tornado, to those affected by it, would never go away, so we wanted to give something back to those people, and even the next generation.”

Soon after, Benjamin found out Verner Elementary was hosting a book drive to help schools in Tuscaloosa whose libraries were destroyed by the tornado, including Alberta Elementary, University Place Elementary and Holt Elementary.

“I realized this is our mission in living color,” Benjamin said. “We wanted to give back to generations so those kids would say, ‘One time, there was a tornado and there were these two moms who came together.’”

The pieces fell into place, and those two moms created ReadBAMARead, a 501(c) charity focused on promoting literacy.

Setting an initial goal

Benjamin and Duckworth came up with the initial goal of raising $150,000 to restock the libraries of Alberta Elementary, University Place Elementary and Holt Elementary. Although ReadBAMARead met that goal, it took time and patience.

The first event – a ReadBAMARead 10k – got the ball rolling, but at one point when only pennies were appearing in the buckets set out, Duckworth questioned if the goal was realistic and really worth so much of her and Benjamin’s time. Before she voiced her concerns, those pennies started adding up, and soon enough accumulated to a point that silenced Duckworth’s doubts.

“It’s crazy to think that all these little taking chances, putting yourself out there and just trying something has continued to just been successful,” she said.

The organization then paired with larger local sponsors and events, such as the Color Run, the Tuscaloosa Half Marathon and Tuscaloosa Toyota, to raise money.

It stood out most to Benjamin and Duckworth that it was the children of Verner Elementary who really stepped up by showing up to the events and donating what they could. Although their school had not lost its library, others in their town had.

Once ReadBAMARead met its $150,000 goal, it did exactly as planned and restocked the three libraries. Benjamin and Duckworth both remember what the Alberta Elementary principal said to them after the fact because it made them realize they didn’t want to stop at that one goal.

“She said, ‘Thanks for being there for us when we were too wounded to do it ourselves,’” Benjamin said.

Enforcing the foundation

Benjamin and Duckworth didn’t create ReadBAMARead simply so those three schools would have a stocked library once again. The two strongly believed – and still do today – that literacy is the foundation of all learning. Not only that, but the books also provided solace for the children, especially after the tornado.

“If you want to read a book and go to an island in the book, you can escape,” Duckworth said. “For people who don’t have the funds to take their own vacation, they can in a book.”

Benjamin relates to this personally because she said she would read to escape as a child. Then, when she had children and when they were young, she would read to them before they fell asleep. It was a simple task, but it created a strong connection.

“We just all felt better as a family,” Benjamin said. “The value of reading, oh it’s so much more than just strengthening your IQ. There’s so much more behind it.”

There were a couple of ideas that came up when Benjamin and Duckworth initially thought about what they could do to give back to the community after the tornado, but because of the escape, the connection and the educational benefits that go hand-in-hand with reading, they knew instantly that was how they wanted to help out.

Thinking of their own children – Benjamin with three, Duckworth with two – the pair knew they wanted to create something that would help out younger and future generations.

“We kind of said to ourselves, ‘What can we do that could give back to the community at a time when people, six months later, would forget we had a tornado?’” Duckworth said. “And it was children and literacy. Who wouldn’t support child literacy?”

Expanding the organization

ReadBAMARead needed another mission after accomplishing its initial goal, and Dr. Carol Donovan, a literacy education professor at The University of Alabama, had an idea. Duckworth said Donovan was familiar with an approach the University of South Carolina took to promote reading and had a similar vision for ReadBAMARead. Together, they created the ReadBAMARead Express, which visits local schools, donating money to the libraries and reading books to the children.

This year, the Express visited Holt Elementary, Alberta Elementary, University Place Elementary and Verner Elementary, which it stopped by on Thursday.

“Oh my gosh, this is pretty much the happiest thing about being principal, to see children excited about learning,” principal Beth Curtis said. “This is why I come every day, to see these children succeed like this. This is the highlight of my year, when I get to see the sparkle in their eyes about reading and learning.”

Benjamin and Duckworth recognized it was Verner Elementary’s students and staff who helped ReadBAMARead reach its first goal, and on Thursday, everything came full circle as the two presented Curtis with a $5,000 check for new library books.

Just thinking about the number of books the check is going to allow librarian Alice Russell to buy gets her excited.

“It’s tremendous because we don’t get state money anymore so it’s a huge, huge help to us to be able to order that many books through the generosity of ReadBAMARead,” Russell said. “It just means so much to the student because they know what ReadBAMARead is, and they’ve worked hard.”

Having that history with ReadBAMARead, Russell believes, makes the donation mean that much more to the school. It supported the organization and now the favor is being returned.

Duckworth had a few more surprises up her sleeve for the children. Each student was to go home with a copy of “Pete the Cat” or “A Say in the White House,” which Curtis was confident would be read that night, but what really had the children screaming and smiling was the guest appearance of Big Al. He was active as the children were read two books out loud and strongly nodded when asked if he enjoyed reading.

“Of course, they loved Big Al,” Curtis said. “Anything Big Al does is contagious. We have always had reading as the most important aspect of our instructional program, and this just reinforces it and take our children to the next level.”

Both Curtis and Russell said the children loved Thursday’s visit. They also believe ReadBAMARead as a whole has done so much for the community and is a wonderful model that people could follow to make a difference.

Benjamin and Duckworth think the Express has been a hit with the schools it has visited. Up next, it will stop by Matthews Elementary. Right now, that is it’s last stop, but Benjamin and Duckworth, calling themselves the “Dynamic Duo” and “Double Trouble,” are far from done. They have big plans for ReadBAMARead, which now includes the Express.

“Just like we found a way to raise that initial $150,000 through the goodness of the community both here and across the county, we’re going to find a way to bring the Express where we can put a book in every single child’s hands in the state of Alabama,” Duckworth said. “We believe it, and we’re going to do it.”

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