LTL Program Brings Businesses and Schools into PartnershipsStephanie Fitzgerald called it a “pleasant surprise,” and then an “unexpected benefit.”
She was talking about the relationship, or partnership, that has blossomed since Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, with which she is a partner, signed on last spring to sponsor the Washington Street School in Springfield as part of an ambitious program launched roughly a year ago by the nonprofit group Link to Libraries (LTL).
Sponsorship entails a donation of $1,200 per year for three years, with that money used to help provide the school in question with roughly 300 new books each year. But beyond the monetary donation, companies are also asked to become engaged with the school in some way, with the most common methods being donations of time and imagination for read-aloud work in the classroom.
However, in this case, the engagement process has gone well beyond reading, said Fitzgerald, who summed up what’s happened in four short months by saying simply, “that’s our school — that’s how everyone here feels. We’re not just donating books.”
Elaborating, she said that the firm and individual staff members have done everything from bringing in school supplies and snacks for students to fulfilling a request that landed at the top of a recently compiled wish list — some picnic tables that would enable outdoor activities at the century-old school in the city’s Forest Park neighborhood.
There are now more than 30 area companies using the phrase ‘this is our school,’ or words to that effect (one area bank can say ‘these are our schools’), said Susan Jaye-Kaplan, co-founder of Link to Libraries with partner Janet Crimmins, who noted that, in every case, the experience has been heightened because it involves much more than writing a check.
“Banks are providing lessons in financial literacy, a technology company [Paragus Stratetic IT] is teaching kids about computers, and professionals are talking about their careers,” she said. “People are tutoring, mentoring, providing kids with mittens and gloves and fruits and veggies … this goes well beyond books, but that’s where it all starts.”
Many of these relationships are in the developmental stages, including the one involving Holyoke Community College and the Morgan School, in the Flats section of the city.
Erica Broman, HCC’s vice president of Institutional Development, said the college signed on as a sponsor in late spring, but a number of reading assignments have been undertaken, including a few involving HCC President Bill Messner.
Looking ahead, she said the college will explore ways to deepen the relationship in the fall, with, among other things, field trips to the campus that will provide an introduction to higher education aimed at inspiring students to make that a life goal.Kaplan said LTL’s goal is to have at least 50 companies in sponsorship agreements by the end of this year. That’s ambitious, but doable, she noted, adding quickly that, while response to the program has been tremendous, there are still dozens of area schools — including more than 20 in Springfield alone — that need sponsors.
“There is still a great deal of need out there,” she said, adding that these links between businesses and schools do much more than fill bookshelves. “It’s important for businesses to get involved with these schools and nonprofits because there are rewards for all those involved.”
For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with many of those taking part in LTL’s Business Book Link program to get a good read on the latest chapter in an ongoing and quite inspiring effort to connect children with books and create excitement for reading.
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Kaplan told BusinessWest that the book-link program was a natural extension of LTL’s efforts to stock area school and nonprofit libraries and get area students started on their own collections.
Since the organization was launched in May 2008, it has relied on grant funding and donations from area businesses and foundations, gifts that have helped enable it to donate more than 165,000 new books and 3,000 used volumes to area schools and nonprofits.
The concept of business sponsorships was embraced to enhance fund-raising efforts, and it has certainly done that, said Jaye-Kaplan, but there were many other goals as well, especially a desire to directly involve businesses with area schools, thus making them an integral part of the solution to a region-wide challenge — properly stocking school library shelves and generating enthusiasm for reading.
Dr. Susan Landry, a physician who has put her medical practice aside at least temporarily, accepted Kaplan’s invitation to serve as project director for the program. She described her assignment as linking businesses to schools, and said that, with this endeavor, there hasn’t been a high degree of difficulty.
“This program has taken on a life of its own — the response has been tremendous,” she said, adding that, once the pitch is made — usually following a lead provided by Kaplan or Crimmins — businesses quickly understand that participation amounts to a win-win proposition. “And from new business partners we’ll get names of other businesses that might be interested … it has really snowballed.
“The schools benefit, and of course the students directly benefit, but the businesses do as well,” she went on. “The check is nice — it helps buy the books — but what we were really hoping for, and what we’ve seen, is that the business feels like a part of the school.”
In many cases, businesses are sponsoring schools in the communities where they’re based. Monson Savings Bank, for example, has taken on a school in that community, as well as another in Ware, the location of its latest branch. Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, meanwhile, is sponsoring that city’s Sullivan School, Dave’s Pet and Soda City has embraced the James Clark School not far from the company’s headquarters in Agawam, and Springfield College is sponsoring the nearby Kensington School. Some businesses have chosen to sponsor area nonprofits, as is the case with FieldEddy Insurance, which has partnered with the YMCA of Greater Springfield.
Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law is based in East Longmeadow, said Stephanie Fitzgerald, but the Washington School is just over the line in Springfield, and is an institution in far greater need than the schools in East Longmeadow.
The extent of those needs became apparent as lawyers and employees of the firm became engaged with the school, she continued, adding that, for many, the experiences were eye-opening and inspiring.
“Everyone is involved — from Frank Fitzgerald [her father in law], whose name is on the wall, to the assistant office manager,” she explained. “Everyone loves to read, the kids are so much fun, and the questions they ask … it’s just been a great partnership for everyone.”
Fitzgerald said the firm signed on in March, well into the school year, but has been “making up for lost time” with twice-weekly reading assignments, on average (a pace needed to include every student in the school), and other initiatives, such as talking with students about careers in law and the hard work it will take to make one reality.
Steve Lowell, president of Monson Savings Bank, said his original career ambition was to be a schoolteacher, so he is partial to endeavors involving education, as is the bank. And when Kaplan and then Landry made pitches for a sponsorship, the institution, which had made a few monetary donations to LTL in recent years, was quick to embrace the concept — in two communities.
Monson, as home to the bank’s headquarters, was a natural fit, he explained, and the experience there inspired the decision to also take part in Ware.
“We saw this as a great opportunity for us to do something really positive in that community,” he explained, “and for us to get involved in a very meaningful way.”
Looking back over the past year, Kaplan said the response from the business community has been inspiring, if not exactly surprising.
“We’ve always had strong support from area businesses, and we knew that this wasn’t going to be a hard sell,” she explained, adding quickly that the program has enabled LTL to broaden its reach, while also giving area companies license to say ‘this is our school.’
And each time that happens, it adds another chapter to what has been one of this best region’s best success stories.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org