KENNETT SQUARE—What Jan Michener, executive director of Arts Holding Hands and Hearts, Inc. calls “the word gap” is one key to breaking the cycle of poverty that isn't heard often. Children in low-income or at-risk homes are exposed to 30 million fewer words by the time they’re five years old, she says.
AHHAH, a nonprofit Michener founded to serve and empower marginalized communities in Chester County through expressive arts, mindfulness, and literacy, has been working since 2015 to put over 58,000 books in the hands of kids in Coatesville through 27 outdoor and over 40 indoor PULL (Pop Up Lending Library) Stations.
When Longwood Rotary gave Michener $1,000 last August to buy materials to build ten PULL Stations in Kennett, she was thrilled. “I was given resources I didn’t have to fight for!” she says with a grin. She still needed people to build them, places to put them, books to fill them.
But, in the way of these projects that have a momentum of their own, before she had a chance to take a cleansing breath she received an email offering support from Laura Florence, the Kennett Library’s Collection Development Coordinator.
And Michener realized she was already in the middle of an exciting story of community caring and collaboration. Florence had been watching the Little Free Libraries popping up around town with great interest, and she’d been percolating ideas for extending that outreach, and particularly to children in Hispanic and immigrant communities without ready access to books and the library. Once AHHAH and the Kennett Library joined forces, the project began to blossom in beautiful and serendipitous ways.
Many inspiring community collaborations have brought the PULL Stations into being. For example: Ben Friedman, a Boy Scout and freshman at Unionville High School working on his Eagle Scout badge, worked with fifth graders at Upland Country Day School to build four PULL boxes.
Students at Upland had built the first box that popped up last year at the Kennett Y. Through a family connection of Susan Rzucidlo, Octorara Area High School students built another three. While each box is built to hold books full of stories, each box also has its own unique story. The PULL Station recently installed at Mary D. Lang Kindergarten Center, for example, was built by students at Octorara and decorated by Kennett Middle School students at After the Bell. PULL Station stories span generations, too.
Early one morning at Yoga Secrets, where she teaches, Michener met a woman who invited her to speak at Kendal at Longwood. There, an elderly man donated another $1,000 for materials and participants in the community’s woodworking program volunteered to build three boxes. Not to be outdone, woodworkers at Crosslands built another three boxes. “They’re built of cypress, with tongue and groove—they’re works of art in themselves,” says Michener.
The involvement of local artists in decorating the boxes has brought the project from strategic and inspiring to magical. Through discussions with Claire Murray, the Main Street Manager at Historic Kennett Square who introduced Michener and Florence to Historic Kennett Square’s arts and culture committee, the dream of the Kennett PULL Stations “evolved into a public art project,” Florence says.
Local artists responded enthusiastically to the invitation to paint the boxes. “Working together with community members and artists, it became a beautiful mosaic of everyone working together and finding joy—around the focus of children’s literacy,” says Michener. She describes it as making art of the people, by the people, for the people.
The PULL Station on the Genesis Walkway for example, by Robert Jackson, is an astonishing feat of trompe d’oeil (be sure to locate the gum stuck under the roof!). In another fun intergenerational collaboration, the box at Pennock Ball Fields was painted by mother and son artists Suzanne and Ian Gaadt.
Artist Heather Davuluc’s box (at the Anson B. Nixon Park Dog Park) celebrates diversity and freedom, with different sides depicting the Quakers and Free Blacks in the 1840s and a modern home with a diverse group of people. On the roof of this box, look for the North Star, which helped guide slaves on their journeys to freedom.
Michener and Florence are excited to nurture and extend these rich intergenerational and cross-cultural community connections, and they know that these stories are just the beginning. “The project is like a little snowball that’s still rolling,” says Florence. And they invite everyone to be a part of the PULL Station story.
“The more we can reach older students to be mentors for younger students, the more it brings up their level of self-esteem as they serve others and build resiliency,” says Michener.
AHHAH has a reading ambassador program with Head Start classes in Chester County and will be looking for more volunteers next school year. Michener says it’s a great opportunity for West Chester University education students, retired school teachers, and other community members to read with children.
“We need people to sign up to be stewards of each box, and volunteers to collect and label books. We’d like to expand the PULL Stations to all areas the Kennett Library serves. We have organizations asking for PULL Stations and artists who would like to paint them. We’re looking for people to build more boxes and donations of money for materials,” said Michener.
And, of course, they need books. “The boxes are only as good as the books we can put in them,” says Florence. The Kennett Library is the official drop-off location for donations of children’s books in good condition (at any level). They’ve appreciated help from the Unionville High School book sale and Chester County Hospital with book drives, and a partnership between the Kennett Library, the Kennett Y, and the Chester County Food Bank enabled them to give out free books to kids at Healthy Kids Day this year.
“It’s like gold,” Michener says, “putting a book in the hands of a child.” Their wish list of books includes bilingual books and books that honor diversity, teach social emotional learning skills, and cultivate caring, loving communities. “It’s important for children to be able to see themselves in the story and the message."
The best way to appreciate these marvelous works of art and the books that inhabit them is to drop by the Kennett Library to pick up a map of the 17 installed PULL Stations and visit each one. When you go, remember to bring a book, take a book, read a book, leave a book!
AHHAH will also be hosting an instore and online book fair with Barnes and Noble Exton to benefit the PULL Campaign on Saturday, June 8th. Please save the date or visit BN.Com/bookfairs to support AHHAH and the PULL Campaign online from June 8 to June 20 by entering Bookfair ID 12530093 at checkout. For more information about how you can be involved, go to https://www.ahhah.org/pull-stations or send your query to ASK@KennettLibrary.org.