She had braces and kept enormous white headphones on her head, like they were part of her outfit, meant to accent her hot pink sweatshirt and sneakers.
“Right here is different,” she said.
The 17-year-old sat in on the last couple of minutes of the Cultural Literacy Workshop at Tree House Books, a nonprofit organization on West Susquehanna Avenue, to pick up her 10-year-old sister.
“I tell my sister, I say, ‘You have to come here every day. You have to learn,’” she said with a smile.
Every day after school, the 17-year-old, who wished to remain anonymous, hears about the book her sister newly discovered at Tree House Books, as part of its mission to increase literacy in local elementary schools.
“Things around here could change,” the 17-year-old said. “This place helps kids want to go somewhere and go to college. You’ve got to change this somehow. You have to let them learn.”
As the after-school program coordinator at Tree House Books, Lauren Macaluso Popp said some students are graduating high school and are still not literate.
“Kids need to learn how to read. It’s fundamental,” Popp said. “It was so hard for me to see someone not know how to read when I first got here. That just doesn’t make sense to me. Students shouldn’t move on to the next grade if they can’t read.”
Last year, Tree House gave out 12,000 free books and 93 percent of its students’ reading levels went up, Popp said.
“We haven’t calculated this year’s books yet, but we are predicting it is over 16,000,” she said.
Popp said it didn’t take her long to realize the impact Tree House Books would have on her since her arrival in 2009. The evolution of the programs, workshops and store itself, forced a change in her personally.
“When I was a student at Temple, I moved into an apartment on 15th Street with a few friends,” Popp said. “I had been living there for eight months before I ever went into Tree House. It just shows how oblivious I was, even living on the other side of Susquehanna, to my environment. I was in my own little bubble.”
From then on, Popp, along with Program Director Michael Reid, enhanced the programs and how workshops would help students.
Tree House Books opened in 2004 and started its after-school homework assistance in 2006. Since then, besides focusing on fundamentals of literacy, it has branched out into career exploration and overall development for students.
“Reading and literacy is freedom,” Naomi Roberson, a VIP who has helped with the Cultural Literacy Workshop, said.
Every Tuesday, Tree House features a VIP, or a successful African American professional, who talks to the kids about the importance of reading and where their skills can take them professionally.
“For kids in the neighborhood, reading is an escape,” Roberson said. “It sets them free.”
As an employee at the Smith Memorial Playground, Roberson said she recognizes the need for children to play. She works with adults in an effort to emphasize the importance of that.
Roberson, who is engaged to Reid, said they were both trying to get a grant for their programs in Philadelphia when she met him.
“We wanted our programs to collaborate, but that didn’t work. We ended up dating instead,” she said, laughing.
Popp said Reid often tells the students that it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do it wholeheartedly.
“It does not matter what you do – if you’re a garbage man, a fire fighter, a doctor, a lawyer, whatever. You just need to be the best at it,” Popp said. “That is such a [Reid] thing to say, but we’ve all come to say it now.”
Popp said that without her job at Tree House, she does not think her life would have purpose.
“Now I know that when I save up enough money, I want to go to graduate school to be a reading specialist,” Popp said. “I love sharing with the kids that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life until I worked for free.”
At 2:45 p.m. each weekday, Popp and the volunteers begin setting up for the program. After the floors are swept, Reid and Popp debate whether a semicircle is the best for snack time while orange bins containing federally-funded snacks and milk are taken out of the fridge.
Many of the students come from Duckrey School, a public school near Tree House Books.
“I really respect and love being around teachers there,” Popp said. “We work together.”
The recent Philadelphia school closings forced many students into switching schools, affecting which students would be able to attend Tree House programs.
“Many families got the tradition of attending the same school for generations taken away from them,” Popp said. “Tree House is becoming that tradition for many families now.”
A parent of a student forced to switch schools said she sends her son to Tree House Books after school because of its proximity to Duckrey.
“It’s much closer to school now, and it looks like it is going to be really beneficial for us,” she said.
By 3:15 p.m., Hannah Montana backpacks, fluffy pink vests, baby blue barrettes and requests for “pink milk” all arrive. By 3:30 p.m., the students delve into 20 minutes of silent reading.
“For the kids, they are reading 20 minutes a day that they wouldn’t ordinarily have,” Popp said.
“I think Tree House is a great source for books for adults in this area too, and sometimes the only source,” Popp said. “Twenty-third and Cecil B. Moore is the closest library for people in these neighborhoods, and they have weird hours. We are just accessible.”
Zac Yelson, a senior education major, is going on his third year of volunteering at Tree House.
“I’ve learned how to interact with people from different backgrounds,” Yelson said. “I like when the kids don’t look to us as authority figures, because we tell them what to do. We’re not though – we are here to help them. We just get to help them realize that they’re smart.”
As a veteran to the program, Yelson said in the past it has been most rewarding to know that he is helping kids in environments that sometimes aren’t the most conducive to learning.
“I was trying to connect with this one kid the first day I was here, and he just didn’t trust me,” Yelson said. “I don’t know how it happened, but at the end of the day he asked me to walk him home, which was his way of saying, ‘We’re cool.’ It felt so good. After that, I knew I wanted to keep coming back.”
Emily Rolen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.