CINCINNATI — Ride for Reading Cincinnati volunteers saddled up on their bicycles Friday to deliver donated books to more than 400 elementary school students.
It was the seventh annual edition of what co-founder Libby Hunter called "the best event of the year." Hunter and more than 30 volunteer cyclists departed Friday morning from Coffee Emporium's Over-the-Rhine warehouse on 12th Street, riding as a group up through Pendleton, Walnut Hills and into Avondale until they reached South Avondale Elementary on Prospect Place.
They were greeted by hundreds of school children, empty bags in hand, eager to pick out up to 10 books to take home with them. All told, the volunteers hauled more than 4,000 books, reading levels kindergarten through sixth grade, for the children to pick from. All the books were donated.
"To see them light up and be so, so stoked for taking home books, there’s nothing like it," Hunter said. In addition to organizing Ride for Reading, she heads up Wordplay Cincy, a nonprofit that creates programs for school children to engage in reading, writing and storytelling activities.
"South Avondale is a school we’ve been working with all year on an integrated arts program in the classrooms," Hunter said. "So just developing that relationship with school staff, the principal — it was a natural fit to say, ‘Hey, let’s do this fantastic thing for a partner we’ve already been working with.’"
Hunter is also an avid cyclist, who partnered with Judi LoPresti — the owner of Spun Bicycles — to bring the national Ride for Reading program to Cincinnati seven years ago. Spun Bicycles is located less than a block away from Wordplay Cincy's offices, both in Northside.
At Friday's book delivery, LoPresti thought back on the first Ride for Reading in Cincinnati, back in 2013.
"For the first year, we had a small school of maybe 50 kids," she said. "We had about 200 books and maybe nine cyclists, and it was just kind of thrown together."
Like the national Ride for Reading program, which now touts 22 participating cities, Cincinnati's program is showing similar growth in the number of interested local volunteers, LoPresti said.
"Since Ride for Reading has gotten so popular, people really look forward to the event every year. We actually have people come to the shop and ask, ‘Have you gotten it together? When’s the event? What’s the school going to be?’ So people actually look forward to this event," she said.
Both Hunter and LoPresti mentioned Ride for Reading's mission to promote literacy and healthy living, especially among school children living in low-income neighborhoods. Fourth-grade teacher and cyclist Mathew Portell founded the organization in Nashville in 2008. Over the last 11 years, the organization has bike-delivered more than 300,000 books to school children across the country.
Hunter said, with Friday's delivery to South Avondale, Ride for Reading Cincinnati has delivered more than 17,000 books to area students.
"It’s all about bringing together healthy lifestyles with literacy," Hunter said. "Overall well-being is so intrinsically linked between our physical selves and our intellectual and emotional selves."
South Avondale Elementary Principal Michael Allison said it's important for his students to link physical activity with mental activity.
"You have to have that physical wellness, and you also have to have that mental wellness," he said. "So it’s one of those things where (if) you collaborate with both the physical as well as the academic, it’s an enjoyable activity that kids can always grow from."
The timing of the Ride for Reading delivery — just two weeks before Cincinnati schools adjourn for summer break — makes it even more critical for students' continuing education, Allison said.
"This event means that our students have access to literacy materials that will allow them to engage in reading activities throughout the summer, and it also encourages them to become life-long learners," he said.
More than anything, Allison said it was "overwhelming" when he road in with the pack of bicycle volunteers to see his students cheering.
"I was overwhelmed with emotion to see our students excited about learning — to see our students excited about being students at South Avondale School and making this a place that they want to come."