Judith’s Reading Room

Judith’s Reading Room

By Kathryn Finegan Clark

An American soldier in Afghanistan carries a book he’s reading – and another, for younger eyes, to give to a small child.

A mother in Allentown, who can barely afford food, accepts a book to read to her pre-school child. Another holds a new board book she promises to read to her baby.

A patient in a hospital chooses a book from a special red library cart to help fill his
empty hour.

A Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China asks for books for her students who must read English in order to go to high school.

The books, provided freely by Judith’s Reading Room based in Bethlehem, are both gift and memorial from a non-profit organization that works regionally and reaches out to the world,

striving to teach “freedom through literacy.” Since 2010, Judith’s Reading Room has donated more than 70,000 books in 11 countries to “promote literacy, empower children and lift communities out of poverty,” says Cathy Leiber, who, with her husband, Scott, founded the organization.

It honors and carries on the message of Judith F. Krug, Scott’s late cousin. She was the director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and the founder of Banned Books Week, a celebration of authors, their work and the Constitution’s protection of free speech.

…by age 3 a child reared in poverty hears 30 million fewer words than a child from a middle-income home. Research shows most children who are never read to, never catch up in school.”

In Ms. Krug’s 2009 obituary, the New York Times wrote, “Defending the freedom to read from damaging assaults by censors in and out of the government was her life’s work.” Cathy added, “She believed libraries served everyone – not just the loudest or most powerful, not just the majority, but everyone.”

And so, what better way to continue her work than to help the world to read?

“Millions of people have never held a book in their hand. A book can save a life,” said Cathy, who is as passionate as one could be about the organization’s mission – to enrich lives by providing books to those who have none.  Although she is proud of the charity’s growth, Cathy said, “I never ever believed we would come this far.” She wonders, “How did this happen?”

It is her drive and energy, her ability to recruit volunteers and her years of experience as a top executive and marketing strategist for a Fortune 500 company that has propelled her mission forward.

She took what she learned from what she calls “a big job” managing Latin American and Asian markets to spearhead the charitable mission.

Volunteers working with Judith’s Reading Room have now completed 49 consecutive months of boxing parties. The first Monday of every month at the group’s headquarters at 5 East Third St., volunteers of all ages gather to sort and pack books for American troops serving abroad.

The books are not just packaged randomly. Volunteers put some sincere thought into the process, selecting books they believe will appeal to American service men and women serving abroad. Each volunteer writes an individual, personal letter to be shipped with each package.

The boxing parties started small with friends and neighbors meeting at the Leiber home in Williams Township, Northampton County. Last year volunteers packed more than 10,000 books worth about $99,000 and shipped them to military bases.

Thanks to Judith’s Reading Room, boxes of children’s books are shipped regularly to the USS George H. W. Bush. Sailors aboard the carrier record themselves reading a book and send DVDs home to their children.

Whole libraries go to Veterans Administration hospitals. A distinctive red cart on wheels packed with about 300 books is considered a library. And those red carts now are appearing in other places – hospitals and rehab centers, emergency rooms, pediatric wards, clinics and adult centers.

Judith’s Reading Room books are either new or very gently used.  Most are obtained from publishers, booksellers and authors, who usually are generous with their donations. People also donate books from their private collections and like the idea of knowing exactly where their books are going.

Judith’s Reading Room has begun a Bi-Coastal Literacy Project, providing books and setting up weekly book clubs for at-risk teen-agers at the Children’s Home of Easton and Harkins House in Oregon. “It’s been so successful,” Cathy said, “a documentary is being filmed to show its impact. The kids are blossoming, showing leadership skills in discussion and learning how to disagree, discovering another way to handle conflict.”

A program called Birth-2-Five provides even earlier intervention. Cathy said she started it when she discovered that by age 3 a child reared in poverty hears 30 million fewer words than a child from a middle-income home. Research shows most children who are never read to, never catch up in school. “Not only do those children have smaller vocabularies, they lack the confidence and competence to compete with their classmates,” Cathy said.

Because she believes “a book can change everything,” the organization now has more than 30 partners in the Lehigh Valley and throughout the world. Last year alone Judith’s Reading Room dedicated libraries in Costa Rica, Cambodia, Namibia, Indonesia and China.

It is also partnering with the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs at Casa Guadalupe in Allentown and Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem. Both centers now have custom libraries provided by Judith’s Reading Room and children ages birth to five are given a book at every quarterly visit.

The books “close educational gaps,” said Cathy.  About 7,000 books, in both English and Spanish were donated to the centers to help close those gaps in struggling families where a book is seen as a luxury item.  Parents receiving books must promise to read to their children 20 minutes a day.

Dawn Bush, WC Clinic Coordinator at Casa Guadalupe said, “This small gift has the potential to take their child out of the vicious cycle of poverty.”

And, that’s what Cathy and Scott Leiber and the volunteers at Judith’s Reading Room are counting on.

For information on how to donate or volunteer, visit JudithsReadingRoom.org

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