The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recently was awarded a $135,000 grant this fall with half dedicated to the Eastern Upper Peninsula schools. With this money, hundreds of books have been provided for local public schools.
AFT Michigan is a union of 35,000 educators working in K-12 and intermediate school districts, community colleges, and universities across the state, according to their website.

According to AFT Michigan’s president David Hecker, the organization applied for an OMG (Offering More Great) books grant from First Book, a non-profit organization that seeks to level the education playing field by providing books and resources to Title I schools and programs serving low-income families. The resources support not only educators, but also school programs, public libraries, sheriff and EMS departments.

“We were pleased when our application was accepted and thrilled when we received more funding than what we asked for to support rural educators,” Hecker said. “Not only will everyone we register with First Book receive books now, for years to come they will have access to books, but also school supplies and basic needs items such as hats, gloves and even toiletries at 50-90 percent of retail costs… The AFT has worked closely with First Book over the years to distribute more than five million free books and resources—including backpacks, winter coats, hygiene kits, blankets, and school supplies—to educators, students, and families. Here in Michigan, we have hosted several large-scale book distributions with local unions in metro Detroit to bring more than 80,000 books to students and families to build home libraries and classroom collections.”

Gary Wellnitz, Northern Field Representative for American Federation of Teachers Michigan, spearheaded the First Book Grant initiative for Northern Michigan.

“As a former teacher and school administrator for 30 years in Cedarville, it brought me great pleasure to bring approximately half of the $135,000 grant money to the EUP for use in local schools, Les Cheneaux Library, Sault Tribal centers, Mackinac County Sheriff, and other departments,” he said.

AFT Michigan has provided hundreds of books for schools across Northern Michigan. Some of these schools include Whitefish Township Schools, Rudyard Schools, Les Cheneaux Schools, Onaway Schools, Fairview Schools, and the Sault Tribe.

This holiday season, AFT Michigan’s intention is to distribute more than 6,000 books for students and families by working with several rural school districts and public libraries to host book giveaways. Working with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Hecker said AFT Michigan provided $5,000 to support their holiday book distributions in tribal community centers across the Eastern Upper Peninsula.

“We just had a giveaway at the Les Cheneaux holiday concert and similar giveaways will occur in Rudyard, Whitefish, and at the Sault Tribal centers from Newberry to Drummond Island,” he said. “Additionally, we have provided $150 per educator willing to order books plus thousands of dollars to Administrators and community activists to help stock classroom libraries and get books into the homes of children in need. The mission of First Book and AFT Michigan is to do whatever we can to promote literacy in our schools and communities. We understand the crisis we are in and the importance of literacy to our nation.”

With this particular grant, AFT Michigan shifted its focus to low-income rural communities. The organization used a 2001 study with the University of Michigan, which found that there are 13 age-appropriate books for every child in middle-income communities while there is only 1 book for every 300 children in the poorest areas.

“Many rural families struggle to pay their mortgage and put gas in their car, let alone spend money on books,” Hecker said. “Not only does this unequal lack of access to books hamper children in low-income families’ interest and ability to read, but it can also have a ripple effect over time by limiting their vocabulary and writing skills, undermining their ability to take advanced courses and potentially leading to lower test scores and grades.”