Tyrelle Henley, an eighth-grader at Loyola Academy, sorted through the tables full of books at his school offered free to the students by The Little Bit Foundation.
Tyrelle picked a Newberry Honor-winning book, “Dogsong” and another book by Gary Paulsen, “Woodsong.”
“I picked these two books because they’re about nature and I love nature,” Henley said. “Plus, they seem to have good stories to them.”
Dana Swanson, a program coordinator at The Little Bit Foundation and parishioner at Annunziata in Ladue, encouraged the boys to challenge themselves when choosing a book. Loyola is a Jesuit middle school with a rigorous academic program for students “impeded by economic or social circumstances,” according to the school’s website.
“If you’re having trouble finding something to read, come to me. I can help,” Swanson told them.
A student took her up on the offer, and she asked him about his interests. Soon, she matched him with two books.
Ashley Chapman, principal of Loyola Academy, said The Little Bit Foundation is an invaluable resource. It provides basic needs for students as well as services such as mental health, Chapman said. The book fair helps the students to enjoy reading with books tailored to their interests, but most of all “they benefit by walking away with something new that is their own,” she said.
The foundation is committed to helping disadvantaged schoolchildren by breaking down barriers to learning and boosting confidence. Besides the literacy programs such as the book fairs, it provides students with clothing, coats, jackets, hats and gloves, hygiene kits, backpacks and school supplies. Affiliate programs support the health and well-being of the children.
Coat too big
In 2001, Rose Hanley’s son was playing on the soccer team at Christian Brothers College High School. Another team parent led a coat drive for St. Patrick Center clients, and Hanley helped. The coat drive was successful, and when a staff member of an inner-city St. Louis school called and told of an urgent need for coats, the CBC parents responded with 170 coats for the school of 250 children.
“I remember that day,” said Hanley, a parishioner at Immacolata in Richmond Heights. “We were standing outside knocking on the door of the school. It was about 26 degrees and the wind was blowing. A little boy ran up with the most beautiful smile and beautiful bright eyes.”
The boy was pleased that his dad lent him his coat for the day. It was a leather coat, many sizes too big, with a broken zipper. As they walked up the stairs, the arms of the boy’s coat dragged on the stairs as he chatted with Hanley. “Something changed in me that minute,” Hanley said, noting that she was inspired by the boy.
When the CBC parents began distributing their donated coats Hanley noticed the same boy in line: “I remember very vividly that I put him in a navy blue down coat, zipped it up and put his hood on, saying, ‘You’re so handsome, look at you.’ He said, “My dad is going to be so happy that I have a warm coat.”
Seeing poverty wasn’t new to Hanley, but she hadn’t seen it on a child’s face before or in a child’s words. “I couldn’t understand why 15 minutes from where I live, there were children who didn’t have their basic needs met — clothing, shoes, food, medical care, school supplies,” she said. “I couldn’t shake it.”
Hanley began talking with her friends. They created a structure to meet schoolchildren’s needs, nonprofit status was granted and The Little Bit Foundation was born. By the end of this year, it will serve 37 schools and 11,000 children.
“It’s a wrap-around model that takes care of everything a child may need to be successful in school,” she said. “We don’t do it all ourselves — we have a core program — but we also bring in other experts into the schools and facilitate the programs.”
Examples of partners include Operation Food Search, which provides food for food pantries in the schools; Eye Care Charity of Mid-America, which provides free eyeglasses; and Institute for Family Medicine, which does wellness clinics.
“It’s about us all working together to give that child what they need to support education,” she said. “We work really hard at increasing attendance and decreasing discipline problems. Our goal is to have more children graduate from high school, be more productive citizens, answer their dreams and changing communities.”
Hanley sees her faith in her work.
“This is what God’s asked me to do,” she said. “This is the gift that He has given me. And through this opportunity I have been blessed with meeting the most incredible people — those who are the richest and those who are the poorest. And what touches me is that we’re all alike and we all have dreams. What I have been given the opportunity to do is bring people together.”
According to Mike England, president of St. Mary’s High School and a member of the organization’s board, The Little Bit Foundation not only does a wonderful job providing students with necessary materials for the classroom, but also extends “an expression of self-worth and self-esteem … to every child that they serve that I believe serves our children the best. Little Bit recognizes the inherent dignity that exists in all people and this has been the cornerstone of this organization from the very beginning.”
The foundation is the avenue for corporations, small companies, foundations and individuals to come together to help bring success to children in impoverished communities, Hanley said.
Most of all, she stressed, “We’re delivering hope.”