A gaggle of schoolchildren sit untidily on the floor, enraptured as a Wildlands Conservancy volunteer reads a book about reptiles.
Their attention only wavers to look at the caged animals that surround the presenter. The turtle and the snake in their glass boxes. The skunk and rabbit in their crates. And a big black box hiding whatever creature is inside.
The presenter takes out the animals one by one. The children giggle at the rabbit, are hesitant of touching the snake. They ask if the skunk will spray them. But the biggest reaction comes when the presenter reveals what’s inside the black box.
A big brown owl perches on her arm and beats its wings as she takes it out of the box. The children gasp.
The Cops ‘n’ Kids reading room’s mission is to connect children and community through reading. By holding events where children are exposed to different learning opportunities — such as interacting with live animals — while at the same time being read stories on the topic, the program aims to encourage literacy.
Beverly Bradley founded the Lehigh Valley branch of the program 10 years ago once she retired from being a teacher. She was inspired by Julia Burney’s story.
Burney was a cop in Racine, Wisconsin, when she found a crate full of children’s books in an abandoned building during a police call. She took the books and started giving them out to children when she answered calls to help diffuse situations and relieve tension. Soon after, children in her community had memorized her patrol car number and chased her around to ask for the books she carried. What started as books in the backseat of a car soon turned into the first branch of Cops ‘n’ Kids, which is now an international organization.
Bradley heard this story and started running the Lehigh Valley program out of a spare bedroom in her house. The first city-wide book drive she held yielded 30,000 books.
“As a teacher and a child of poverty, education changed everything for me — everything,” Bradley said. “And so I thought I had that responsibility, as do all of us. . . . You have a responsibility to pay that forward.”
Now Cops ‘n’ Kids has a dedicated reading room located in Northampton Community College and as of Aug. 31, 2016, has distributed 761,033 books over its 10 years. The program works entirely with volunteers and donations.
Even Bradley is a volunteer. She gets no paycheck to run the program.
The reading room is open to the public every Wednesday. Each time a child comes to the reading room or an event, they are allowed to take five books home with them.
“It’s really neat when you hear the laughter,” said Kathy Chartier, a volunteer and retired teacher.
The program mostly works to give low-income communities access to books. Bradley said she sees the impact every event has on children and their families. Some children, she said, had never owned a book until they took one from the reading room.
“Imagine life without a book,” Bradley said. “Your heart aches. You can’t imagine what happens in life without a book.”
She remembers being pulled aside after an event by a mother of three who told Bradley she had added up the cost of all the books her daughters had taken just that day, and it had amounted to more than $150 worth of books. She told Bradley this program helped them as a family, not just her daughters.
The day of the Wildlands Conservancy event, Carole Devey Schachter, an English as a second language teacher at Bethlehem’s Thomas Jefferson Elementary, brought four children with her. The children, who were her students, had recently lost their house due to a fire. She brought them to the reading room to get them out of the hotel room they have been living in.
Schachter said she’s heard that some kids who use the program are homeless, have been molested or in foster care. She believes the reading room brings a positive space into these children’s lives.
Bradley works closely with different Lehigh Valley police departments, whose officers come to different events throughout the year and interact with the children.
Bethlehem Police officer Thomas DeFrank has been working with the program since 2008, when he was chosen to be the crime prevention officer for the city.
He said the thing he likes the most about the program is that it gives children a chance to meet police officers in a social situation.
“It helps to give people a better understanding of what we’re like and what we do,” DeFrank said. “With programs like Cops ‘n’ Kids, the kids get to meet us in a situation that’s not stressful and is pretty enjoyable. So it gets to begin that relationship, and I think (brings) a bit more understanding when serious things happen.”
By DeFrank’s own count, out of the department’s 150 officers, he estimates about half have had some sort of involvement with the program. Other police departments, like the Allentown Police and the Lehigh Police, have also been involved in the program.
Both DeFrank and Bradley recounted experiences with children recognizing them months or years later after they participated in the program. Bradley said even though the purpose is to get children to read, the connections they make in the community help these children feel like they matter.
“To me, it’s ideally one of the best things that a community can do in terms of making our children understand that they matter and ultimately impacting our future,” Bradley said. “If we get them hooked on reading, guess what? They’re going to want to go to school, they’re going to want to do better.
“They’ll have dreams in life because that’s what a book is — a book inspires you.”