Back in 1999, Rebecca Constantino was doing research for her Ph.D. about what happens in schools when kids have access to luxury. That’s when she saw boxes of brand new books stacked up in the hallway of a school in Brentwood, an affluent section of Los Angeles.
“I asked the librarian what she was doing with the books,” says Constantino, 49, a Reno native who now lives in L.A.. “She said, ‘Well, we just don’t have room. I’m throwing them away.’ I said, ‘Really? Can I have them?’ She said, ‘Sure.’ ”
So Constantino packed up all the books and drove them to an elementary school in Compton, an underprivileged section of the city about 15 miles away where schools were shuttering their libraries, unable to afford new books.
“A few days later, someone from Brentwood called me and said, ‘I hear you collect books,’ ” she says. “I told her, ‘I don’t really but you could bring them to me if you’d like.’ The next day I took them to another school.” After that she began getting calls from other schools and parents. “My car could fit about 4,500 books,” says Constantino, “I was really cramming them in there!”
Fourteen years later, Constantino has donated more than 1.3 million books through the non-profit she eventually created, called Access Books. She’s also helped to refurbish more than 200 libraries. “In California, there is absolutely no state funding solely designated for school libraries,” says Constantino, “But access to books changes a kid’s life.”
The schools she has helped agree. “When these kids are given books, they light up, they beam,” says Chris Stehr, principal of Vine Street Elementary School, where Contantino has supplied books and refurbished the library. “For a lot of low socio-economic communities, books are a luxury. They view these books as treasures.”
With the help of volunteers and donors, Constantino spends her Saturday afternoons making deliveries and renovating run-down school libraries. “It only takes a day,” says Constantino, “We paint and give each library a rocking chair, a reading rug and a couch.”
An adjunct professor at the University of California-Irvine and UCLA, Constantino says the kids she serves are truly grateful. “People think that kids aren’t reading and they aren’t interested in books,” she says, “but they love books. They’re so excited to get them.”
And they need them. One young boy, who was being raised by his grandmother while his parents were imprisoned, requested books on Martin Luther King. His grandmother later told Constantino that the books were keeping him off the streets. “Now he’s up in his bed reading,” the grandmother told her. “He’s up all night. Reading and reading.”
So Constantino asked the little boy what he liked about the books. “He looked up at me and said, ‘Oh, Miss Becky, they take me to a world I’ve never known,” she says.
“It’s the best thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
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