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'BooksFirst:' One Woman's Quest to Put a Dent in the CPS Library Shortage

By Paul Biasco | January 14, 2014 7:27am
 Bernadette Pawlik and her husband Jeff Dorman on the front steps of their Lincoln Park home, which serves as the drop-off point for donations.
Bernadette Pawlik and her husband Jeff Dorman on the front steps of their Lincoln Park home, which serves as the drop-off point for donations.
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DNAinfo/Paul Biasco

LINCOLN PARK — The 2012 Chicago Public Schools teacher's strike had an unintended consequence, parking one woman's drive to put books in the city's elementary schools.

So far Bernadette Pawlik's BooksFirst has created libraries in two CPS schools, is about to start a third and has collected more than 5,000 books for Chicago's schoolchildren.

The teacher's strike and online discussions over the teachers' decision to walk out for a week opened Pawlik's eyes to the state of the city's public schools.

Her 12-year-old son attends a private school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Little Italy, and there are seven kids in his class.

"I really wasn't aware of the enormity of the differences before I started reaching out about public schools," Pawlik said.

Pawlik started BooksFirst shortly after being introduced to the principal of Uptown's McCutcheon Elementary, Jennifer Farrell, a month after the strike.

About 92 percent of the school's 500 students received free or reduced lunch, and 92 were homeless.

Pawlik, who is an executive recruiter, took what she had — hundreds of children's books in her home — and decided that's how she would make a difference.

Through online networks such as the Neighborhood Parents Network, Facebook and Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, BooksFirst gathered 2,000 books for McCutcheon.

The school had a space for the library, but was lacking the books.

"I thought, 'Well you know what? That's something I can do,'" she said. "My kid probably has 500 books and we go to the library every week."

BooksFirst's base is Pawlik's home office, which is stacked with boxes of books. The dropoff point is her Lincoln Park home's front stoop, and the staff consists of her husband, Jeff Dorman, and her son.

Most donators don't ring the doorbell, and of the 100 people who have dropped off books, Pawlik has only met four.

One of those was a mother who brought her son to the front door to speak directly to Pawlik.

The boy didn't believe there were schools without libraries.

"A lot of people now are switching to Kindle and iPad for their kids, so these people had a lot of books," Pawlik said. "People just started dropping books off on my porch."

The budget for the organization consists of money saved by cutting back from lattes to black coffee at this point, but Pawlik hopes the organization will someday grow to become the book equivalent of Toys for Tots.

Since McCutcheon's library, the organization has created a second library for Deneen School of Excellence with 1,000 books.

The next project is to create a 3,000-book library at Parker Community Academy in Englewood, where about 20 percent of the 750 students are homeless.

The timing for Parker Community Academy couldn't have come at a better time.

When Pawlik called the school's principal, she had just told the staff they wouldn't have enough money for books they had planned on buying because of budget cuts.

"It was like, 'Wow,'" Pawlik said.

From there, the strategy is to create a priority list of schools without libraries with a significant population of homeless children and find principals who are ready to create a library or the equivalent.

"This is not brain surgery. I'm kind of hoping other people look at BooksFirst and say, 'She's not a genius. If she can do it, why can't I do this,'" Pawlik said.