Gunnison teacher drives up summer enjoyment of reading
A picture-perfect day at the park had all of the symbols of summer: food on the picnic tables, children on the swings, and lots of books on the bus.
Not sure about the books? Then you haven’t spent this summer in Gunnison, where “Senorita Rita’s Rockin’ Reading Route” has kids running out for a school bus with enthusiasm usually reserved for an ice cream truck.
“It’s really exciting to see the kids when they see the book bus,” said Teresa Galloway, with her children Marissa and Cole, when the library on wheels pulled up at Legion Park, July 26, for its third stop of the day. “You see the look on their faces – it’s just incredible. They say, ‘The Book Bus!’ and they run to it.”
There would be five more stops on this day for Rita Merrigan, a special education teacher at Gunnison Elementary School who brought the summer book bus to the community.
“When I was a child, I had a Book-Mobile that came by my house and brought books,” said Merrigan. “A lot of my cliental of students live in the outskirts, or in certain neighborhoods that don’t have access to the library. So I wanted to get books together, put them in a bus, and bring them out to the neighborhoods.”
Merrigan, who is also the president of the Gunnison County Education Association, owns all aspects of the book bus program. She secured use of the bus from the local school district, collected donations of books and organized fundraising between several supportive community groups. She even drives the bus.
“The enthusiasm around this whole thing has been fabulous,” Merrigan says of the community’s reaction. “Everywhere I go, people say, ‘You’re the book bus lady.’ Or, ‘Senorita Rita, we love your book bus.’
“I get great joy from it,” Merrigan continued. “It’s been giving me lots of good energy this summer.”
The project’s growing popularity, covered in two local newspaper articles, has given Senorita Rita and her bus celebrity status in this town of nearly 6,000 people.
“We had to chase down the book bus today, because it’s so important to my daughter,” said Lynna Frymoyer, who called this summer addition awesome for the community.
“The kids continue to stay excited about reading. And just the access of having the books right at our doorstep, the novelty of it,” Frymoyer added. “Not all of us get to the library as often as we should.”
Getting to town’s public library is challenging to many, and a main reason Merrigan volunteered three days a week for seven weeks to put free books in the hands of children while school wasn’t in session. While there are smiling faces at all the stops, her visits with Grecia and other students living in trail park communities hold special meaning for Senorita Rita.
“That is part of why I got this started,” said Merrigan. “There is a certain socio-economic challenge in this community, in every community, and families are working in two jobs to just try to keep their kids fed. Daycare is an issue. Transportation, getting kids around, can be an issue. And so I decided to hit those kinds of spots around the town where they aren’t able to get to the library, or won’t likely get to the library.
“Some of the kids I see, I know do not have any books at home,” Merrigan added. “This gives them opportunity. I think there’s a scaling down of what a child’s reading level might be if they don’t get a chance to read during the summer, so this is really important.”
Merrigan has committed to operating the book bus next summer, with ideas to expand the coverage area and number of book buses to serve more families. With enough funding, she hopes to hire a couple bus drivers and teachers to join her project.
“Yeah, I’m going to be a job creator,” Merrigan said with a smile.
Senorita Rita and her volunteer assistant this day, Cecilia Eager, signed out 50 books and saw 10 first-time borrowers. The summer total now stands at nearly 700 books loaned to more than 200 children.
The last stop of “Senorita Rita’s Rockin’ Reading Route” brought out Jeni Vincent and five of her six children, showing one more powerful advantage of the book bus.
“My kids are too loud for the library,” Jeni laughed.