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If you are reading this, chances are the next sentence may seem odd:

There are kids out there who need books -- who never owned a book.

Avid readers may find that puzzling, because "readers" usually grew up holding books, owning books. As children, they usually had a favorite book that their parents or relatives read to them over and over.

But many don't.

Ask Lee Gardner, who is both a volunteer helper and a student at the Literacy Volunteers office at 712 Main St. At 44, he is no kid -- but he is learning to read.

"I never had a book when I was a kid," he said. "I never really saw books because I grew up in a little town in Georgia and left school after second grade to help my mama. She didn't read, either, so I never saw books, much.

"They tell me it will take me maybe three or four years to get it to stay in my head," Gardner added, "but it got so I was embarrased. Papers would come for me, or a letter, and I'd have to go find someone to read it to me. It's hard work now, to try to learn, but they say I can do it if I just keep at it."

He is not alone, and the idea of a new books project being launched today is to reach children now so that they won't face similar problems when they are adults.

"Nothing is as important as education and reading," Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey said at the start of the "Books for Kids" drive today. "These are the two major suits in the fight against poverty."

"This is a new communitywide effort," added Bob Bennett, executive director of the United Way. "It is a unique campaign that will help between 50 and 75 agencies distribute a book to each child in Erie and Niagara County who does not have a book of his or her own. We want 25,000 books -- and 16,000 are already spoken for."

An anonymous donor Tuesday gave the first 2,000 volumes to the drive.

"Half the adults in this country have difficulty reading," said Carolyn Gromer, chairwoman of the board of the local chapter of Literacy Volunteers of America.

With 30 years of service in Buffalo and Erie County, this organization has fought the longest to help unlock worlds that those who can read take for granted.

"I remember my first student when I began volunteering in 1983 -- a man, 21 years old, who had graduated Kenmore High School -- yet could not read," Mrs. Gromer said.

"He had no printed material in his house and was amazed that people even had books in their homes. Since then, I have learned that one person in five in
Erie County cannot read, and 11 percent of all the adults cannot read at a fifth-grade level.

"A lot of them might have learned to read better if they had books as children," Mrs. Gromer said. "True, a lot of illiteracy is generational, and some is due to learning disabilities -- but to children who are short of possessions, a book would be a prize.

"There is something about having your own book. It would be a treasured possession and might help unlock a bright and literate future."

That is the aim of The News Books for Kids drive.

Co-sponsored by Buffalo State College and several other agencies, this is a communitywide effort to find 25,000 children's books, each of which will go to a particular child, inscribed with his or her name as something they can have and hold. Maybe that book will turn that little key to unlock reading skills and help that child avoid the path of poverty.

Community-based agencies will help distribute the books as they continue working to help adults read to children, and help children lead parents to greater family literacy.

Buffalo State President F.C. Richardson called the partnership between the college and The News "a natural fit for many reasons."

"One is the fact that our campus is the home of the E.H. Butler Library," named for The News' longtime publisher, he noted. "And together, both the college and The News have a history of commitment to the Buffalo community. The Books for Kids drive will further that commitment."

By a happy confluence of circumstance, this first Books for Kids drive occurs just as several other initiatives are shaping up in Buffalo.

First, the Literacy Volunteers -- for all of its existence an adult program -- is starting a family literacy pilot program, where small groups of welfare parents and their children will be coached, together, so that each motivates the other to read.

Project FLIGHT (Family Literacy for Intergenerational Growth and Home Teaching) has begun at Buffalo State, aiming at similar goals; and the Junior League is flexing its considerable volunteer muscle to preach and teach family literacy.

There are many schools, centers, churches and similar support groups that want to help teach kids to read, and The News, in cooperation with libraries, has a way to get those books to them.

Just drop off any children's book for any age level at any of the 52 branches of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library or at the Niagara Falls or Lockport libraries. They will be sorted and distributed throughout the Niagara Frontier.

The books may go to schools, to special-education classes, to the children of immigrants trying to learn a new language or to the handicapped.

In this time of fiscal belt-tightening, books are often the first "luxury" to go. Yet $10 spent on a good children's book might mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings for a literate person later in life. Books and the knowledge of reading -- given now -- might help ease the terrible burden on the welfare system.

But, best of all, books offer hope.

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