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WAKE FOREST — The two biggest passions in Phoebe Owen Sill’s life were books and children.
The long-time elementary school librarian always gave her seven grandkids books for Christmas. Now, her legacy is helping students at Wake Forest Elementary School have access to books.
When Phoebe Sill died a little over a year ago, her son, Stewart Sill, created Grandma’s Bookshelf in her honor.
“She was always an avid reader, had an extensive personal library at home, and knew all the good used book stores across the state,” Sill said. “I asked her what her favorite book was. I expected something she had read in adulthood, maybe one of the mysteries she liked so much or a riveting drama she had read, but she said ‘Charlotte’s Web.’
“It struck me how passionate she was about children’s literature.”
Phoebe Sill often read to her children and grandchildren, he said. She loved to read about Christmas and was very animated when she read aloud.
For her funeral, people donated to the school library where Phoebe Sill had spent her career.
Sill wanted to spread that love to other schools. Both of his children attended Wake Forest Elementary, and his wife taught there as a substitute. Sill reached out to library media specialist Kathleen Lim.
“I don’t know libraries and I don’t know books, so I decided to lean on her as an expert,” Sill said. “They have various programs, but they all need funding. We focused on raising funds.”
He said he focused at first on a reading program where books could be given to kids who need extra help reading during the summer.
“It actually turned out to be even more important because COVID-19 came around and schools were shut down,” Sill said.
Grandma’s Bookshelf raised over $1,000, which Sill used to purchase 125 books from Page 158 Books, a local bookstore.
“During COVID-19, fundraising wasn’t easy, but a lot of folks love the cause,” Sill said. “It started with a GoFundMe page, and we raised a few hundred dollars before COVID hit. Then we sort of paused. Then when things started to calm down a little bit, we went back out and highlighted this need.”
By that point, people were starting to worry about how much school children, especially younger elementary students, were missing, he said.
Lim and Principal Chell Smith worked with teachers to determine which students could best benefit from the books.
“We really wanted to make sure that we put books in the hands of students who either may not have books at home or who have reading skills that may not be grade-level benchmarks,” Smith said.
“The data tells us that students who are behind in reading in third grade will typically also be below grade level in seventh, 10th and through graduation, so it’s really important for us to try to get as many of those students as possible on grade level in the younger years because typically kids who struggle with reading aren’t going to be avid readers.”
Reading is a skill that must be practiced or else people lose fluency, she said. It is especially important for students who are just starting to decode words and create meaning to practice.
“Over the summer, it’s particularly important so that they don’t have the summer slide where they slide backward in their literacy skills over the summer,” Lim added.
When students came in to get their belongings at the end of the school year, the books were placed in the bags as well.
“It’s so important for kids to just read all the time. The idea that somebody has their own books to read gives them something they can love and keep going back to,” Lim said.
Sill plans to continue to do more with Grandma’s Bookshelf. He wants to expand the program’s reach to other schools and continue to raise money for next year, especially since educators don’t know what the new school year will bring.
Phoebe Sill was a quiet and humble person, but Sill thinks she would love to see what her legacy is doing, he said.
“I was telling somebody when Kathy sent me the picture of all the books that she would have gotten a kick out of that. She would have been giddy over getting the kids those books,” Sill said. “I think she’d be proud of that.”
For more information about Grandma’s Bookshelf, visit them on Facebook at Grandma’s Bookshelf NC.