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Ray Elementary Librarian Gets Kids Pedaling to Keep Lights On

By Sam Cholke | April 15, 2013 6:09am

HYDE PARK — Leslie Travis is tapping into the seemingly inexhaustible energy of children to keep the lights on and sewing machines humming at Ray Elementary School.

Travis has been the librarian at the 5631 S. Kimbark Ave. school for 23 years and is now putting pupils to work pedaling a bicycle that generates electricity. Travis then uses the power stored in a battery to run the library’s circulation computer and the machines for the sewing club.

“It was kind of a joke actually,” Travis said.

Travis wanted to teach the kids about environmentalism, electricity and bicycles when a parent joked she should power the library with kids on bikes. Travis took it seriously and applied for a grant. In January, Climate Cycle awarded the school a $1,950 bicycle system to make kid-generated electricity a reality.

“They like to know they’re doing something to solve environmental problems rather than just moaning and groaning about the problem,” Travis said.

Travis enlisted a fifth-grade robotics team to assemble and service the bike, and the school’s basketball team comes in to pedal and power up the battery, which is about the size of a car battery. Travis hopes to power the scoreboard with the bike at the next basketball game at the school.

“You want people to learn how to teach themselves,” Travis said, as one of the five girls in her evening sewing club came up to ask a question.

To be sure, the pedal power isn't enough to run the machines all the time; Travis is still trying to come up with a way to determine just how much power the kids are generating.

Last week, five girls toiled on sewing machines on small stuffed owls and pencil cases on their own, occasionally looking to Travis for guidance on the instructions.

“It’s easier than I thought it was,” said Kira Banks, a sixth-grader who hadn’t done any sewing before joining the club. “I think she’s taught me a lot in sewing. They way she explains it wasn’t a way where I hand to have it explained over and over.”

Travis said she tries to send every student who signs up for sewing club home with their own machine, most of which are donated.

“Anyone in my club ends up earning a sewing machine. What’s the good in learning to sew if you don’t have a machine at home? No good at all,” Travis said.

Despite their naivete, the club members are showing promise — three Ray students were finalists in a quilting competition and have quilt blocks on display at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Ky.

“I’m happy, but I’m glad I didn’t win because I think if you win they keep it there,” said Abigail Moon-Sarudi, a fourth-grader who was able to go see the work she described as easy on display over spring break. “It’s just like sewing a bunch of little blocks together.”

Travis is proud of the club members, but was more impressed that the girls were teaching themselves how to do new things on their own.

“Kids today are so lucky because if they do want to explore their interests it’s becoming easier and easier. There are so many ways to teach yourself,” Travis said. “If you want to know something, you’re not stuck with what the people around you know and what’s in your library.”

The school will get one more bicycle later this year from Climate Cycle so the younger kids can more easily participate.