- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - It started with hundreds of books stored in the basement of Mathew Portell’s tiny house in East Nashville.

The piles of pre-loved children’s stories - collected from the local biking community in support of a local teacher’s big idea - then turned into thousands of books. They moved from the basement to a 5-by-5-foot shed. Then to a 10-by-10. Pretty soon, Portell had so many books he had to find space in a building.

And that is how the tale of Ride for Reading began.

Now, the Nashville-based nonprofit that collects and delivers books to low-income children in the most unusual way - by bike - has grown so big that it’s in 16 cities, including Las Vegas where each year more than 100 book-delivering bike riders shut down the casino-lined strip to deliver thousands of books to Nevada kids.

In eight years, more than 300,000 copies of “The Cat in the Hat” and “Thomas the Tank Engine,” ”Madeline” and “Amelia Bedelia” and tons of other reads have been given away here and across the country. And the organization wants to do more.

The Big Payback can help.

The Big Payback, which took place May 3, is a communitywide, 24-hour online giving challenge hosted by The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. The day of donation is designed to inspire all of us to support the good work in our city - all at the same time. Ride for Reading will be one of the 770 charities, schools and religious institutions to participate in the giving frenzy from midnight to 11:59 p.m.

Last year, more than 14,435 donors contributed more than $2.65 million for the community - in one day.

The big impact of the Big Payback fits well with the “it city” label, Portell says. To be a desirable place to live means more than having hip restaurants and booming businesses. A city must also have residents willing to help others - and Nashville has that.

“The Big Payback goes right along with the mantra of Nashville,” Portell says. “This is an opportunity to cohesively come together as a community and support all the organizations that are trying to make our city even better, and to help raise funds we desperately need.”

The mission of using books and bikes to inspire children in low-income communities to be both literate and healthy happened somewhat spontaneously for Portell eight years ago.

Back then, he was a graduate student in his first year of teaching at Amqui Elementary in Madison. He asked his fourth-grade students to read for 15 minutes at home each night. One student replied that he didn’t have any books at home to read. It didn’t take long to realize that the student’s problem wasn’t unique.

Research shows the ratio of books per child in low-income neighborhoods is one age-appropriate book for every 300 children.

“I think that it’s no fault of our families,” Portell said. “Some of our families have to think about everyday life necessities - food, shelter, electricity.

“Sometimes you have to prioritize what the most important things are,” Portell said. “Sometimes books don’t fall into that because food is important.”

Portell felt compelled to help his students and others like them. So he reached out to his mountain bike friends and asked them to donate. Pretty soon, he had enough grassroots support to start a nonprofit.

Now, every couple of months in Nashville, as many as 40 cyclists get together and ride through the city’s impoverished neighborhoods with books loaded into bike trailers, gear bags hanging alongside their wheels and backpacks slung over their shoulders.

Though the connection between bikes and books may not seem obvious at first, Portell, who is a principal at Nashville’s Fall-Hamilton Elementary where 92 percent of students come from low-income families, sees the bridge. Often, we learn to ride a bike and read a book around the same age. And, he says, both pedaling a bike and reading a book can take you on an adventure.

And experiencing a Ride for Reading book delivery is nothing if not adventurous.

Imagine nearly 900 elementary school students clapping and screaming as a dozen bikers crest a nearby hill and ride toward the cheering mass with enough books in tow to give each child two new stories.

It happened.

Earlier this month, the entire student body at Haywood Elementary lined the blacktop driveway outside the school holding signs with enthusiastic messages about reading and books. The riders were greeted by huge smiles and high fives, and they stopped in the middle of the swarm to talk about reading and riding.

“It’s like being a rock star,” says rider Graham Gerdeman, who has been taking part in delivery rides almost as long as the organization has been around. “… You can hear the kids a block away. They are so excited to read and to get these books.

“It’s the best feeling you will have on a bike, whether you are a professional cyclist winning races or you are a commuter on your bike. The best feeling you can get is to share this experience with the kids and to know how much of a difference it’s going to make.”

As the riders unloaded their paperback-filled bags onto cafeteria tables, the kids swarmed in a book-finding frenzy, flipping pages and searching for the perfect book. Clutching their new treasures to their chests, some students went back to read at their desks, others were visited by still-helmeted riders in their bike shoes who read aloud.

Bill MacDonald sat on a tiny chair surrounded by first- through fourth-graders, turning the pages of “Old MacDonald” as he led the kids in a sing-along about farm animals. From the corner of the room, teacher Amy Hollahan smiled. Her students, many immigrants, are unique in that they are each attending school for the first time.

Many come from non-English speaking homes, where books help kids and parents communicate and learn - in story or song.

___

Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com

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