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College of Information and Communications

Cocky’s Reading Express and USC student organization team up to provide a Little Free Library

CRE has been nominated for an Outstanding Achievement award  for  making an exceptionally positive impact on the community.

Nearly every day, the school librarian watches a preschooler slip a book into his backpack at Hyatt Park Elementary in Columbia. His eyes light up with excitement over the perfect adventure he selected. But unlike most of the books in this school’s library, the young student doesn’t have to return this one — it’s his to keep forever.

A newly launched program, led by the University of South Carolina College of Information and Communications, gives students at Hyatt Park Elementary and a growing number of other schools across the region access to hundreds of free books.

“We want to make sure students and their families constantly have access to books. We know having a home library greatly impacts literacy rates,” said Margaret Cook.

Cook coordinates the university’s popular Cocky’s Reading Express, a literacy outreach initiative that brings USC’s mascot to schools across the state to encourage students to read and give out free books. With the support of generous partners, the literacy initiative is growing to include the Adopt a School and Little Free Library programs.

Margaret Cook
Margaret Cook talks to the students at Hyatt Park about the importance of reading every day.

“Adopt a School partners your organization with a Title I school for a year of literacy service which includes the installation and upkeep of a little free library at that school,”  said Cook. “Businesses, student or community organizations, churches or individuals can become impactful literacy partners.”

Hyatt Park Elementary received its Little Free Library thanks to the donation and support of the Association of African American Students at USC, a student organization with about 300 members.

“We saw this as an opportunity for college students, who have the privilege to go to the university and obtain higher education, to show elementary students what they can achieve if they work hard,” said Makayla Walker, service chair of the student organization. “We wanted to inspire them and encourage them to keep reading and learning.”

The student organization, and other “adopters,” promise to stock the library with at least 400 books throughout the year. The AAAS members raised money to adopt the school through a popcorn fundraiser and hosted a book drive to stock the library.

CRE reading stories to students
Cocky and Makayla Walker

“In just the first month of having the Little Free Library in our school, we provided more than 100 books to local children,” said Wanda Wylie, Hyatt Park Elementary’s library media specialist. “The gift of reading is one of the best gifts we can give children. I've seen parents and children take advantage of the gift by grabbing books as they enter or exit the building.”

You may have seen a Little Free Library book-exchange box outside a business or in a park or neighborhood near you. The nonprofit organization, based in St. Paul, Minnesota, provides access to millions of free books through a global network of volunteer-led little libraries. There are more than 180,000 registered Little Free Libraries worldwide in 50 states, 121 countries and on all continents.

The organization also offers grants to underserved communities and specifically works to encourage reading inside “book deserts,” where fewer than 10% of homes own more than 100 books.

The free standing little free library at Hyatt Park Elementary

"Little Free Library is proud to work alongside USC's Cocky's Reading Express to improve book access and inspire a new generation of readers across South Carolina,” said Shelby King, director of programs, Little Free Library. “Ensuring that each child in every community can see themselves in the stories they read is central to our mission. Our hope is that through these new Little Free Library book-sharing boxes, children will be able to access books that incorporate experiences from all identities for all readers, regardless of their circumstances."

By May 2024, the little free libraries will be installed in five schools in Richland County School District One, one Richland County after-school program, and one school in Newberry County, with a gift in place for another school in Williamsburg County.

“We are committed to installing at least five little free libraries each semester to help this program grow quickly,” said Cook.

To reach that goal, Cook hopes to encourage more partners to support schools in their communities. Depending on how many students attend the school, sponsoring a Little Free Library costs between $2,500-$4,000. The cost covers an exciting visit from Cocky to launch the program, the installation of the library, a custom sign with the partner’s name on it, and library upkeep for a year. Partners may purchase books from Cocky’s Reading Express or hold book drives or other fundraising-type events to buy the books.

student holding books from the CRE visit
During visits to schools, Cocky's Reading Express gives each student a free book to take home with them.

“My hope is to make literacy a community effort and to get as many people involved as possible,” said Cook. “Though Cocky’s Reading Express is a fun day of celebration of reading in schools, we don't get to keep seeing these students throughout the year. So, I want to make sure there are other community members who have those schools on their radar and continue to serve those schools through these Little Free Libraries throughout the year.”

Over time, these community partners will build stronger relationships with the schools.

“That’s how we will work together to truly impact students and families. We saw it firsthand at Hyatt Park. The children loved having the college students at their school, reading to them, having them interested in their lives. It’s also important to show college students how impactful they can be with young students. When we are all invested in the success of children, communities improve.”

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