SERVING OTHERS: Bloomington High School Club Focuses on Expanding Literacy

Reposted from The Pantagraph

By Lenore Sobota

BLOOMINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic slowed but hasn’t stopped a new student club at Bloomington High School dedicated to improving the community through service.

“I’m saying ‘service’ intentionally because it’s not just volunteering. The whole idea of service is making a permanent change in the community you’re serving and a change within yourself,” said Brandon Thornton, a special education teacher who is adviser to Club Alternative Breaks — Club AB, for short.

The students have chosen “access to literacy” as their focus this school year.

From left, BHS freshman Tess Halperin, sophomore Caitlyn Mitchel and senior Salvador Rodriguez load books into the Little Free Library they installed outside Irving Elementary School, 602 W. Jackson St., Bloomington.

Club AB began organizing in spring, with help from Illinois State University students. It is modeled after ISU’s Alternative Breaks program, which gives students opportunities to enact social change during their spring, summer and winter breaks, and on weekends.

The plan is for Club AB to do projects in the community during holidays, weekends and other breaks in the school year. While put on hold during the pandemic, Thornton said the club has “reinvented” itself to focus on smaller projects.

 “I did Alternative Breaks at ISU and it changed my whole perspective,” said Thornton.

“It’s normally at the college level. … We’re trying to be one of the first high schools in Illinois to do this at the high school level,” said Thornton.

For its kickoff event on Monday, members of the club installed a Little Free Library outside Irving Elementary School, 602 W. Jackson St., and filled it with books for both children and adults.

“It increases access to reading material for kids and our neighbors, too,” said Irving Principal Messina Lambert.

Although the school has a library, the little library “is open all the time and it (the book) is theirs to keep or swap it on their own time,” she said.

The club plans to install about five little libraries across west Bloomington, calling them “Raider Resource Boxes,” to stress the issue of access to literacy, said Thornton.

BHS sophomore Caitlyn Mitchel helps install a free library outside Irving Elementary School as the first project of Club AB.

The club is also looking into access to literacy for McLean County Jail inmates, not only for the inmates themselves, but for the inmates to read to their children, said Thornton.

“Reading is a big part of our education,” said sophomore Caitlyn Mitchell, explaining why literacy was chosen as the club’s focus.

Senior Salvador Rodriguez said he became involved in the club because “I wanted to get more involved in the community and do something that would work with my schedule.”

As they sorted through books, organizing them on the two shelves in the little library, the students had fun recalling books they liked or books they think neighborhood residents will like.

Tess Halperin said, as a freshman, the club is a way for her to meet people but also “I can carry on what we do.”

Zaven Dadekian, a sophomore, said, “I don’t know what the future holds. Right now, I think there’s a lot to do for the betterment of the community.”

Club AB is supported through part of a $2,000 Youth Engaged in Philanthropy grant awarded by Illinois Prairie Community Foundation to the Bloomington High School Promise Council for “Lights On at BHS,” an initiative intended to engage, empower and educate BHS students to make changes in their lives and the world around them.

If you would like to help fund more programs like this in the community, donate online to IPCF’s Youth Engaged in Philanthropy which funds grants to youth.