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Book drive for children takes on new urgency

It was a literary Hurricane Katrina for book-starved children.

A devastating flood in Buffalo State College's Books for Kids storage room last June destroyed about 100,000 books.

Soggy boxes represented a loss of about $2 million worth of books in the wake of a water main break in the college's Student Union basement.

"I felt absolute despair," said Elizabeth Cappella, co-director of the literacy program Project Flight. "It took us eight years to build up a library of books -- 40,000 of those books were to go out that fall to schools' specialty reading programs."

So the annual Books for Kids drive, running through April -- Literacy Month -- is especially vital this year, supporters say. They observed the many empty shelves at the campaign's kick-off early Friday morning in the book bank.

Some of the lost boxed books were slated to be sent to kids for seasonal events, like Easter, added Cappella, chairwoman of educational foundations and a distinguished service professor at Buffalo State.

Through her efforts and those of other reading advocates, needy boys and girls will get those books. The collaborative campaign sponsors the collection of books to encourage literacy for youngsters in need.

The goal: 70,000 new and "gently used" books.

Over 1.3 million books have been given to boys and girls since Books for Kids was established in 1995.

In addition, donations to Books for Kids, also sponsored by The Buffalo News, fund the purchase of specialty books for special-needs children.

"Needy children are given new books of their very own," said Cindy Sterner, News promotions manager.

Too many poor families, experts point out, may have to choose between food and books.

"In Buffalo, the adult illiteracy rate is actually rising, up from the national average of 20 to 30 percent," said Cappella, referring to statistics in last year's State of the Region Project.

Friday morning's event included speakers like 17-year-old Alex Anzalone, a Canisius High School senior and founder of the Books for Kids High School Coalition. His effort to get area high schools involved in the drive now encompasses 10 schools and "it's growing," he says.

Books for Kids has also grown in the past 11 years to include organizations like Quebecor World Buffalo, Wegmans, the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library and the Junior League of Buffalo.

Project Flight is co-directed by Buffalo State English professor Geraldine Bard.

Checks to Books for Kids/Project Flight pay for bilingual, Braille and other specialty books for boys and girls facing various challenges. They can be mailed to Books for Kids c/o The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo NY 14240.

e-mail: lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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