COOS BAY — Almost 680 first-graders received a free book Wednesday along with an enthusiastic message on the importance of reading.

Five South Coast Rotary Clubs worked with local school districts to arrange the second annual Gift of Literacy event, held at the Southwestern Oregon Community College campus.

The event is geared toward first-graders and is modeled after the Springfield Gift of Literacy event, a well-established, award-winning program that fosters a love of reading among young children.

First-graders from Bandon, Coquille, Coos Bay, Myrtle Point, North Bend, Powers and Reedsport were bused to the Southwestern rec center and greeted with high-fives from volunteers as they walked into the gym. The young students were then entertained by a skit performed by Rotary District 5110 Governor Bill Grile and volunteers from the Bandon High School leadership class. 

The interactive skit focused on the necessity of reading to know how to interpret signs and labels and order food, and had the kids cheering loudly in response.

Students are greeted as they enter the Southwestern Oregon Community College rec center gym for the Rotary Gift of Literacy event Wednesday morning.

Many local fire fighters, police officers, chefs and others in uniform volunteered to read to the children following the skit. The Southwestern Raccoon, along with the Bandon Tiger and Myrtle Point Bobcat mascots also entertained the young students. 

After being read to, the students were given cinch bags filled with pencils, erasers, crayons and a career-themed coloring book. Also inside was a new hardbound book each child could bring home, chosen from six books given to all the first-grade classrooms in Coos County and Reedsport last fall. The books represented a diverse, multi-cultural selection and varying reading skill levels. 

"I love that Rotary can bring the joy of reading to our local kids," Grile said. 

Grile said the possibilities of expanding the program are endless. 

The program started in Wyoming by Rotarian John Jorgenson in 1996 to honor his late wife’s commitment to literacy and books. Now, every first-grader in that state takes part each year.

Rotary District 5110 Governor Bill Grile talks to first-graders about reading at the second annual Gift of Literacy event at Southwestern Oreg…

It was at Grile's suggestion, along with hours of planning that got the Gift of Literacy underway on the South Coast.

"For years, Rotary District 5110 has funded dictionaries for elementary school students to take home for their very own," Grile said. "Nothing against dictionaries, but two years ago South Coast ESD Supt. Tenneal Wetherell, Southwestern President Dr. Patty Scott and I put our heads together and just thought there had to be a better way to get young students excited about reading than to give them a paperback dictionary.

"Gift of Literacy has been a proven success in other communities like Springfield and Ashland. I knew it could be impactful here too," Grile added. "And I knew our kids deserved to experience it. Port Orford Rotarians have asked us to bring Gift of Literacy to them, so maybe the program will grow in that direction."

One of the Bandon High School students who helped with the skit, Hannah Brookshier, took part as a child in another part of the state and still remembers the event. 

"It's fun to be able to help now," Brookshier said.

The event was made possible by a multi-club Rotary District Grant matched by local clubs. Scott, a member of the Coos Bay/North Bend Rotary Club, said the college is proud to promote literacy and provide the young students' first glimpse of a college campus, with hopes it will plant the seeds of higher educational goals.

Bandon Police Chief Bob Webb reads to Ocean Crest Elementary School students along with Coos Bay Rotarian Eva Shimotakahara at the Rotary Gift…

Rotary District 5110 will hold its District Conference May 3-5 at The Mill Casino-Hotel. More than 350 Rotarians within the district, which encompasses the southern two-thirds of Oregon and the northern part of California, will attend to hear renowned national speakers and gather for fellowship. 

For more information on the Gift of Literacy, visit southcoastorgiftofliteracy.org.

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 Bandon Western World Editor Amy Moss Strong can be reached at 541-347-2423, ext. 305, or by email at amy.moss-strong@theworldlink.com. Follow Bandon Western World on Facebook.