The preschoolers were squirming and looking toward the window when "Miss Emma" walked by with a group of friends and an orange crate full of books.
Emma Dunne's face lit up and she gave them a wave as she made her way to the entrance of Little Beginnings Day Care in Oak Park. So began an hour of fun that Dunne hopes will teach the kids to love literature before they have learned how to read.
Dunne, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, recently launched "Balls & Books," a program that brings books to daycares and preschools, delivered by Huskie athletes.
Last Wednesday, Dunne, a lacrosse player, brought the girls volleyball team to talk about their sport and read to the kids. Players were paired with a preschooler, who were led to the orange crate to pick out a book for them to read together.
The kids then take their book home. The athletes get a taste of volunteerism.
Dunne is alarmed by the minority student achievement gap and studies that show many kids, as they enter kindergarten, have 0-5 books at home.
"We're building bookshelves, giving the kids resources," Dunne said. "We have such a diverse community and we all start at the same place. I think we can do more so that everybody is at the same level."
The idea came from a freshman year assignment. After reading Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children here, her class was asked to write a paper with ideas on developing a nonprofit program to address a community need.
She came up with the book campaign, wrote the paper and turned it in like any other assignment.
Following a leadership conference the summer after her sophomore year, however, she became determined to bring the program to life. With her friend and tennis player Tess Trinka, she spent her junior year organizing, meeting with coaches to secure team commitments and collecting donated books.
She tried out the idea at the high school's daycare program before reaching out to daycares in the community. She has brought books and teams to two different daycares and is hoping to partner with more. She makes the rounds every other week with a different team.
"A lot of high school kids have good ideas, but they don't always find themselves in a working situation," said Assistant Athletic Director Courtney Sakellaris. "She has the ability to see something that can be changed and take action to make it happen."
The seeds of "Balls & Books" were actually sown when Dunne was little.
She's from a family that had bedtime stories every night and Dunne remembers her dad dozing off and her flicking his nose so that he would wake up to finish the end of a story — for the fourth or fifth time.
"I grew up with hundreds of books," she said. "It is so much a part of who I became as a student."
She had a recess friend with whom she played sports, but they grew apart the older they got. She remembers him making a school basketball team, then getting kicked off the squad because of poor grades. He eventually left school.
"When I didn't see him in school, I cried," Dunne said. "We were so close, and we could've helped him."
Dunne has been accepted to Yale, where she will take pre-med classes and may try walking on with the lacrosse team.
As passionate as she is about getting books into kids' hands, she is equally determined to pass the program off to another athlete or two to run. With every group of athletes she brings to a daycare, she hopes to inspire a successor.
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