Two furloughed friends have created a book club that introduces elementary students to stories about people of different cultures and ethnicities and teaches them about tolerance.
Maya Brooks and Kaylin Bergeson had been furloughed from their jobs at Walt Disney World and were looking for a way to be productive and, at the same time, to do something positive.
They discussed ways they could give back to the community in a way that incorporated their love of books and reading, and the result is a program they call Diversify the Classroom.
The non-profit provides new books to elementary school students “that feature protagonists of all races, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities — allowing children to grow up with the tools to celebrate our similarities and differences,” said Brooks, an Ocoee resident, and Bergeson, of Winter Garden.
“We donate books with the hope of these kids growing up to be more tolerant individuals and adults,” Brooks said.
Their program offers books in bundles of nine in three elementary age groups: Considerate Cub, for kindergarten and first grade; Tolerant Tiger, for second and third grades; and Diversity Dragon, for fourth and fifth grades.
The founders searched the internet for diverse books, asked teachers what books were on their wish lists and looked at books teachers use for different reading levels and compiled a master list of more than 300 books before paying a visit to the children’s section of Barnes & Noble.
“We have a nice partnership with Barnes & Noble … and they help us ship out the books all over the nation,” Brooks said.
Teachers can request individual books or a complete set free of charge for their classroom, and Bergeson and Brooks send them out as monetary donations allow. The sets range in price from $95 to $125.
Support has been great so far both locally and around the country. They said they expected to start a crowdsourcing account and give books to a few schools, but they already have received requests from 150 teachers and have given away 53 bundles.
The plan is to offer a different set of nine books each year.
Reading has long been a passion for Brooks and Bergeson, who are both 27. Brooks said she read an eclectic mix of books, from American Girl and “Gossip Girl” to “Twilight” and books about the Holocaust.
“Growing up in a household as a person of color, my parents wanted me to feel represented, so they bought me books with characters that looked like me on the cover,” Brooks said. “I want kids to take pride in their differences. I want every kid to feel so represented that each character they read about is simply just another character. There should be no superiority of a book simply based off the protagonists’ skin color.”
Bergeson was a fan of the Harry Potter series, “Knots and Crosses” and anything on the summer reading list.
“When I was a kid, I would achieve my school reading goal halfway through the year and then add more books to my plate for fun,” Bergeson said. “I read hundreds of books about people that looked like me, navigating a wide array of situations. When I would read books about people who did not look like me, they were exclusively about slavery, segregation or war-torn countries. I never read about what types of food other cultures would cook at home, how other races navigated their everyday lives, or even how they did their hair.
“I believe it's time to make a change,” she said. “While we can't change a home, we can try to change a classroom.”
“As adults, we realize some lessons about acceptance and tolerance are not taught in every home,” the pair wrote on their website. “While our country grows to be more and more diverse every day – we realize the importance of bringing these lessons to light at a young age.
“We believe these teachings need to be introduced at the foundation of our education so when upcoming generations enter adulthood they are able to appreciate, celebrate and embrace everything that makes us unique,” Bergeson and Brooks wrote.
“We just want to make a difference,” Brooks said.
There is no fee for teachers to register; and anyone can nominate a teacher to get a book or bundle. For information on the program or to make a donation, visit diversifytheclassroom.com or find Brooks and Bergeson on Facebook or Instagram.