St. Nicks Alliance last week cut the ribbon on the BK Story Voyager, a multimedia library bus, at P.S. 34 in Greenpoint.
The bus, which holds 4,000 books and a few tablets, can accommodate up to 15 students. Its goal is to improve literacy and inspire a love of reading and learning.
“This was a dream, and we were never sure that we’d be able to pull it off,” said Michael Rochford, executive director of St. Nicks Alliance.
The uncertainty stemmed from the lack of funding. The total cost of the bus was just under $300,000, according to Rochford. But St. Nicks Alliance won $212,000 in capital money from Councilman Stephen Levin’s participatory budgeting process, which allows community groups to submit an idea for public funding.
Rochford said with the support of volunteers, many from the school community, they had the fourth-highest scoring project.
“Once that happened, we said, ‘Wow, maybe this will really happen,’” he said.
The project also received $60,000 from the Von Damm Family Foundation. Henry Von Damm was one of the original founders of St. Nicks Alliance. The project now has other corporate sponsors, including UPS and Waste Management.
Levin said he couldn’t take any credit for this because the participatory budgeting process is there to help the public. He said his office was “at best a conduit.”
“The ideas for what to fund are thought up by the public, the ideas are developed by the public, they are voted on by the public,” Levin said. “In reality, all the credit belongs to the public for coming up with this idea, believing in it and seeing it through to fruition, then getting out the vote to make sure it actually wins the process and is funded.”
Levin said an issue that he and Councilman Antonio Reynoso have worked on is literacy in poor communities.
“Children that grow up in poverty experience an awful word gap,” he said. “By the time they reach the age of three, they have missed out on 30 million words compared to children that grew up in affluent homes.
“We need to do everything that we can to counteract that and to cut down on that gap,” he added.
Levin said the BK Story Voyager, which was designed by students at Pratt, will be a part of that solution, and is a tremendous asset to North Brooklyn’s families.
“If you can develop that love of learning at a very early age, that’s the best gift we can give our kids,” Levin said.
The BK Story Voyager will make biweekly stops at St. Nicks Alliance’s afterschool programs and community centers, including P.S. 18, P.S. 147, P.S. 250, Brooklyn Arbor School and Williamsburg Community Center.
Rochford hopes to have the bus available during non-afterschool hours and at children’s events in the community as well. The bus can lend books to children and will have a book giveaway program.
Debra Sue Lorenzen, director of Youth and Education at St. Nicks Alliance, said her true excitement for the project started the day the first kids boarded the bus.
“They were so enchanted,” she said. “It was the novelty of the bus, absolutely, but it was also the intimacy of the bus.”
P.S. 34 Principal Carmen Asselta said the BK Story Voyager is an opportunity to open the doors of literacy to everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live. She said she was happiest for the children.
“We know the value of literature and its capacity to leading children into the future,” Asselta said. “We want their futures to be filled with success and with achievements, but most of all, enrichment.”
The original idea for the bus came from a 2012 meeting of St. Nicks Alliance’s Youth Committee, which is led by community member Martha Suarez.
Suarez, a mother of two and a marketing executive, put her skills to use to boost interest in reading and improve literacy. Within a month, they decided the best way to stimulate reading was to provide a mobile library.
“I’m very proud to see it on wheels,” Suarez said. “That bus was thought out to a tee.”