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Richmond mom brings literacy to laundromats

The Clean Xpress Laundromat is smack in the middle of Richmond’s busy MacDonald Shopping Center. Moms are loading and unloading machines. So you might imagine their kids are sitting in plastic chairs watching television. But they’re not. They’re reading.

“Bookstore. Bookstore cat. This is Muligan. Muligan is a working cat. He works in a bookstore,” says Kahlil Moneiro, who is reading Space Rock with his mom, Tana Moneiro.

Tana Monteiro is a working mom and an organizer for the Richmond College Prep School. Of course, she wants her son to read. But she finds actually getting him to Richmond’s Main Library to be practically impossible. It’s only open five days a week. It closes its doors, most days, at 5 pm. What Monteiro does have time for, though, is doing laundry. She has to.

So there she was at the Clean Xpress Laundromat one day. She saw how bored her son was, and that’s when something clicked. Why not bring the library to the laundromat?

First, she needed some books. So, she enlisted help from The Richmond Community Foundation and West County Reads. Then, it was time to go to the owner of the laundromat with her vision.

“She was really excited,” Tana Monteiro said. “She said that one way she tries to keep the kids happy, or not crying, or not bored, is by giving them candy. So she thought having books would be better than candy.”

To raise money for the bookshelves, Tana Monteiro helped plan a Literary Festival, the first of its kind in Richmond. Last year, the project collected 1,000 donated books. Monteiro says it was a huge success. And at the festival, she announced that bookshelves would be put up at eight locations throughout Richmond.

“My son was at the announcement of that, and I said that we would have two or three books per kid,” Monteiro says. “I asked if there were any questions, and he raised his hand and said, ‘Did you say two or three books?’ So he was very excited that there would be more than one book.”

That wasn’t all. West County Reads placed donation boxes throughout Richmond to ensure that there would be plenty of books to put on the bookshelves. One donation box is located at the Starbucks at Point Richmond.

I went there with West County Reads’ chairman, Kevin Hufferd.

“I'm actually taking books out of our collection box here at the Point Richmond Starbucks,” Hufferd says. “It's quite a haul. It’s not only is it filled to the rim, and it’s a tall wonderful box but it's also got two boxes next to it.”

The program is so successful that Starbucks had to start adding its own cardboard boxes to collect books.

“Some of these books I've never seen in my life. Here's a deluxe gift set about the cupcake crusader Horace Splattley,” Hufferd says.

The program is called “Take One, Leave One,” but children often don’t leave books behind, because they rarely have one to leave.

“Well, I'll tell you, in low-income communities like Richmond, it's unfortunate that there are far too few books in children's homes,” Hufferd says. “I think it’s the joy and excited looks on the children's faces that, one, lets me know that it's such an important thing for them, and that it's so joyful. It lets me know that it's probably far too rare that they get an opportunity to do that.”

The unemployment rate in the city of Richmond is five percent higher than California's average unemployment rate. And last year, according to one measure, Richmond ranked as the sixth most violent city in America. These factors can make it hard for kids in Richmond to focus on reading books, especially when these books are hard to get their hands on.

“It’s just far too rare to see children’s books in the neighborhood. That's our idea: to make sure that wherever families are, there will be books there,” Hufferd says. “We all need to make sure children can read by the time they're in third grade because from then on. If they can't do that, they're really struggling.”

The thing is, they all are doing something about it. The whole community. Last year, West County Reads received 10,000 donated books. The program is expanding. It’s in churches and theater spaces, as well as in laundromats. And more bookshelves will be set up around Richmond’s neighboring city, San Pablo.

Each week, hundreds of books are donated, the bookshelves are re-stacked with books, and each week the bookshelves are emptied yet again, because of something Tana Monteiro knew all along: kids love to read.

The city of Richmond still has a depressed economy. The state and city are making more budget cuts. The libraries, here, aren’t likely to get more staffing or hours anytime soon. But in the corner of a laundromat, a mother and her child are reading together. One book at a time.

West County Reads currently needs more space to store the books. Find out how you can use your business or home to store books by calling (510) 816-READ, or emailing here.