- Associated Press - Friday, July 22, 2016

KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) - “Who wants a backpack full of books?” Steve Fugate asked a crowd of children ranging from infant to teens. Nearly 60 small hands shots up in the air.

Foster children in Howard County received backpacks Tuesday, each filled with 25 books, as part of the Books for Youth program. The Indiana Department of Child Services partners with the Indianapolis Colts and Colts sponsor Cargo Services to put on the event several times a year at various places in Indiana. Haynes International has hosted the event in Kokomo for the last five years.

Blue, the mascot for the Colts, helped distribute backpacks during the event. Most children were excited to get autographs and throw footballs back and forth with the mascot, but a few seemed scared of the big, fuzzy blue horse towering over them, choosing instead to accept backpacks from Colts cheerleaders.

Steve Fugate with Cargo Services said the program does more than just provide kids with something to read.

“This program gives them a backpack full of 25 books, and that’s theirs,” he said. “It’s not their brother’s, or their step brother’s, or their foster brother’s, it’s theirs. They call it their own.”

The Books for Youth team works throughout the year to sort books, making sure they’re only giving out ones that are new or gently used and have no personal messages written in them, said Stacy Lozer, Books for Youth program director. They also organize the books to make sure they’re age-appropriate.

The program’s goal is to distribute books to every foster child in Indiana, which at any given time could be 10,000 to 12,000 children, Fugate said. They have given out nearly a million books and more than 8,000 backpacks.

“If kids aren’t reading - and even adults if we don’t continue reading - it is a big stumbling block to moving forward in education,” Lozer said.

During the event, children pulled out books tailored to their age group. Sixteen-year-old Rayvyn said she likes to read love stories, such as “Everything, Everything,” by Nicola Yoon. In her backpack, she found books such as “Inside Girl,” by J. Minter. She plans to start reading it right away, she said.

Rayvyn’s 9-year-old sister, Payge, said she reads just about anything. She received books such as “The Boxcar Children,” by Gertrude Chandler Warner.

“Oh those were my favorite when I was little,” said Rayvyn and Payge’s foster mother Lisa Hollering.

The event means a lot, Hollering said. It encourages children to read and helps them understand the power of reading. It’s also fun to watch her foster children receive new books.

“They get in the car and they’re like, ‘Oh, these are so cool! These are what I wanted to read.’ Plus, they become Colts fans, which is my favorite part,” Hollering said.

The program started in 2006 with the help of Steve Pemberton, who was once a foster child and is now chief diversity officer and divisional vice president for Walgreens. Pemberton credits his success to a moment early in his life when a man gave him a box of books. It wasn’t the books themselves, but the act of kindness that inspired Pemberton to pay it forward.

People can get involved in the program in a number of ways. Volunteers help sort books and pack backpacks twice a month in Indianapolis. People can also buy Mascot Backpacks through the Colt’s store, and the team will donate an extra backpack to the program. The IDCS also accepts book donations throughout the year, including at a Colt’s game every year.

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Source: Kokomo Tribune, https://bit.ly/29WNI6p

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Information from: Kokomo Tribune, https://www.ktonline.com

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