Books as Bridges

Blanketed in Kindness
Elementary students help hurricane survivors to turn the page


When devastation visited Louisiana in 2005, thousands of people felt the impact.  Hurricane Katrina claimed businesses, schools, homes and lives.  All the world looked on in shock and sadness as residents of the Gulf region struggled to pull together and regain some normalcy.  Among the many people affected by the storm were children from Clermont, Florida.  Their hearts were touched, and they went into action.

Fourth grade students at Cypress Ridge Elementary School learned that children in Mississippi and Louisiana had lost everything.  They knew they couldn't replace everything for their distant neighbors, but they knew they could do something.  Teachers Kellyann Goring and Star Olson took the lead, seeing an opportunity to expand on a charitable project they'd undertaken the previous year. Before Katrina, two student-made quilts had been sold to help one family in need.  After Katrina, many hands joined the effort and made many quilts.  Those quilts became books and the books became a bridge.  Quilts to Books forges friendships across many miles.

This is a whole-school effort, pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, with 30 to 35 quilts made each year.  Each teacher selects a theme for its class quilt, usually based on something the class is studying.  Goring selects fabric to match the themes and cuts enough squares for each student.  Students then prepare their squares and area quilters volunteer to sew those squares into sturdy quilts.  Their handiwork is displayed and raffled off at the annual Celebration of Learning academic night at Cypress Ridge.  Funds generated by the quilts purchase a wide assortment of books, which are delivered to a chosen sister classroom far away.

This year's recipient is Jenny Thompson's classroom at Arabi Elementary in Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish.  Arabi principal, Carla Carollo, expresses gratitude for Cypress Ridge's generosity. "It was a lovely bit of lagniappe (LAN-yap).  That's what we call it in Louisiana... a little something extra."  Carollo says that Thompson, who's just beginning her teaching career, now has a room that's overflowing with books of every genre.  "There's a HUGE range of books... pop culture, legends, informational texts," says Thompson.  "I can organize by genre and I try to use them in lessons, and after the lessons, the students ALL want the books." 

Thompson hails from the midwest, and she and her husband both became teachers in Louisiana to help rebuild, following Katrina.  She says every act of kindness for the kids really means a great deal.  She especially loves how well the books can be incorporated into her instruction.  "It's so easy now for me to go to a shelf and get a book and we can talk about the main idea...and from something real... not a test-like passage."

Something real is what the students at Cypress Ridge get, also.  Learning through service to others makes lessons meaningful and memorable.  Making the quilts, selling the quilts, buying and donating books are all momentous parts of the project.  But there's more.  Through technology and writing, the students get to know one another and stay in touch.  When Thompson's class received their books this year, their benefactors brought along a video of Cypress Ridge fourth grade students introducing themselves and saying hello.  Thompson explains that the book delivery is just the beginning of their connection.  "The videos help us to put a face with a name.  We now have a pen pal relationship.  We talk about the books and what they're learning.  We write about once a month.  It helps them to practice their grammar, too.  They get so excited!"

At home in Florida, Goring and Olson are working on their next round of quilts... to build more bridges to more students. But they aren't alone. Several other schools have signed on for the Quilts to Books brigade. Among those is St. Martin Upper Elementary in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. St. Martin was the first school to receive the literary largesse from Cypress Ridge. In the case of SMUE, those who were helped have now become the helpers.

For the originators and for newcomers to the program, all the themed quilts they make in many dozens of classrooms help students to master material for varied tasks and tests. But Star Olson sees such larger lessons occurring here. "In our culture today, we can be so self-centered. Our class and our school can see that something small that they do can help so many people. They get to see how good that feels." It's the books they give and the words they share between them that build the bridge between the schools. But it begins with the creation of quilts. That certainly seems appropriate for providing comfort, for sharing warmth and for blanketing new friends wth kindness.

If you'd like to see Quilts to Books in action, go to



(c) HAPPY Reading 2011