Cyclists Delivering Books: Where the Rubber Meets the Road
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As Mr. Portell completed the day’s lesson with his 4th grade students, he asked them to select books at home and commit to reading every day. After giving this assignment, he discovered many students did not have books at home, let alone access to reading material. Passionate about teaching, Mathew Portell was determined to find solutions to this challenge.
…only one in 300 students in Nashville had access to age-appropriate reading material.“As a person who always spent time in my local library,” said Mr. Portell, “I knew I was fortunate, and so I wanted to find out why – despite having local libraries in the vicinity – our students did not have access to books.” A graduate student at Tennessee State University at the time, Mathew focused on studying this issue, and ultimately discovered that, at that time (2007-2008), only one in 300 students in Nashville had access to age-appropriate reading material. As staggering as that number sounds, this became clearer when he discovered the majority of students in Nashville Metro Public Schools lived at or below the poverty line. A solution-oriented man, Mr. Portell was called to find ways address this need.
An avid mountain biker, he turned to his fellow cycling community and asked for his friends’ help. “I love our cycling community because there are people from all walks of life, and even though our personalities and lifestyles differ, we share a common bond through our love for riding,” he said. Mathew began mountain biking as a teenager, enamored with the thrills from speed and jumps. While he acknowledges that still plays a large part, he also appreciates the added benefits of physical and mental health that cycling offers. He received overwhelming support from his friends with books and financial contributions…and so, Ride For Reading was born in 2008.
“I wanted to find a way to combine my passions,” said Mr. Portell, “And so, I thought – what better way to engage our cycling community than by delivering books via bicycle to our local schools?” As a teacher already fully immersed in and committed to increasing literacy, Mr. Portell was determined to bridge the gap between the every-day challenges our students face, with their access to educational materials outside the classroom.
As many of you likely understand, public education is but one component of the betterment of our youth and society as a whole. Mr. Portell cites his own background and education as the inspiration for his efforts. “One thing that really helped to kind of unlock my mind was when others encouraged me. I often struggled with my own doubts, but my teachers, my professors, and my wife…they all encouraged me and helped me to realize that I could go even beyond my own potential.” And so, this is Mr. Portell’s philosophy. He cites what we all endure as our “healthy struggle” – our circumstances that are not necessarily positive or negative, but rather our personal experiences that have an effect on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live. Now a school principal, Mr. Portell makes a distinction that empowerment must supersede salvation in all facets. Awareness and recognition of choices play a large role in the education of our youth.
Mr. Portell analogizes the physical challenge and mental focus required for conquering a 9-mile hill on a bike to the dedication and efforts we must put forth in life. Pushing through doubt and testing the limits of our minds when it comes to physical challenges, conditions us to overcome adversity. When cyclists meet for a delivery ride, he always admires those that ask for their bike trailers to be fully loaded with books…he is personally familiar with how challenging it is to ride across town with books in tow. Once a month, Ride For Reading volunteers meet, load up, and ride to a local elementary school. Along with faculty and staff, students await their arrival outside, witnessing the cyclists–often over 100 riders–arrive with books, delivered just for them. Students select books that correspond with their interests, and volunteers give a short presentation, asking students to commit to reading their book twice, and then retaining them in their personal libraries or sharing them with other students. Since many students are unable to go to their local libraries, Ride For Reading brings the library to them.
You can help too, even if you do not ride
Ride For Reading’s website is rideforreading.org. Programs are now in 18 different states, and the organization’s success relies on the efforts of people like you. The organization accepts book donations, financial donations, and volunteers are always needed for deliveries and at the warehouse. Visit the website to find out more about how you can make a positive difference in our students’ lives.
As demonstrated by the efforts of Mr. Portell, the power of one can have a significant impact on the lives of others. May we each embrace our “healthy struggle” in such a way that we open our hearts to the needs of those around us.
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