United Way, Olseth Family Foundation Distribute Poetry Books to Fourth-Graders

By Joe Steck – Mankato Times

MANKATO, MINN. — It was a big day for Mankato area fourth graders as they received a special gift from the Olseth Family Foundation – a hardcover book of poetry.

For the second year in a row, the Olseth Family Foundation has given a grant to Greater Mankato Area United Way to provide brand-new, hardcover books of Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” to 1,600 fourth-grade students throughout the region.

Sammy Bruggeman and Alisha Jenson are seniors at Mankato East High School and helped hand out, sort and label books as part of Youth Service Learning. They both received the Silverstein book when they were fourth graders.

“I went to Kennedy Elementary School and still have my book,” said Bruggeman “It was a fun book and has always been a favorite book of mine.”

Jenson received her book while attending Washington Elementary. “I still have my book. It is a good quick read.”

Jon Olseth of the Olseth Family Foundation read a few poems before the books were handed out to the students.

East seniors Sammy Bruggeman and Alisha Jenson.

Mankato Public Safety Officer Jessica spoke with the class about being safe this summer and to remember to wear their helmets because they may receive a ticket for a free ice cream cone if they are abiding by the laws.

Superintendent Sheri Allen was in attendance and encouraged the fourth graders to continue reading.  

Olseth then asked the students if they would like to read – and without hesitation, hands went up in the air.

The children did a beautiful job reading poems and after each reading, the class clapped showing their approval. You can see a video of the children reading on the Mankato Times Facebook page.

So how did the Olseth family get involved with supporting literacy?

“My mom was really involved in literacy. She read to the blind and she would do audio recordings and record newspapers. A big part of our family identity is who are you reading now? What are you reading?” said Olseth

“I grew up with a companion book and think that there is something special about having a book of your own. This is a project that gives a bit of ownership for the student. To be able to bring a book home and have a relationship with it and that is a big part of having a hard cover. There is a level of commitment with a hard cover because it is going to be there for a long time.” Said Olseth

Olseth pointing to a funny picture before a student reads.

The book project was initially done through Rotary before the Olseth Family Foundation took over.

“The project was done through Rotary and Barb Kaus was part of that delivery, and then they stopped,” said Olseth “I remember thinking that it was a great program and can we resurrect this. I spoke with Barb and I didn’t want to step on toes with Rotary if they were going to do this again. She said they are ready to have someone else do this, so in partnership with United Way we decided to make it happen again.”

So how did they choose to give out the poetry book?

“Poetry is one of the easiest things, but as we get older we forget that and think it is one of the most difficult things. Kids intuitively understand every one of these poems. It is to share it, to read it and to laugh with it. They are just open to it,” said Olseth “When we chose Silverstein he has a little rebelliousness, a little sensitivity and he certainly is a proponent for children.”

“With poetry you can read a poem in a minute. It would be wonderful if we all had hours on end to read Harry Potter together, and many families do, but with poetry, we were able to have about ten students stand up and read and feel a part of something. To be able to speak and have your voice heard is so powerful, and poetry gives you a chance to do that,” he said “After a long day a parent may say I can’t read the novel but they can yes, I can read a poem. There is room in our lives for it. When we read poems it is singing to each other, and I think we need to sing to each other a bit more.”

Olseth giving some encouragement to a young reader.

“This is our second year and we have gotten more volunteers and community involvement in delivering the books, from students to law enforcement and having that involvement it is starting to get that groundswell and that is where the real change can happen in Mankato so uniquely. Starting and building up from inside out and I think that is a powerful campaign.”

Olseth went on to talk about the Family Foundation and their partnership with the Greater Mankato United Way.

“Our job is to help communities in what ways that we can. In some ways it is through institutions and organizations that are already established. There is always room for innovation and the United Way is both of those. They are established but they are also wanting to partner with innovation and I think that has been a great relationship.” He concluded.

Poem from “Where the Sidewalk Ends”

Poem from “Where the Sidewalk Ends”

“Jon’s passion for literacy and equal access to books led to our continuing Fourth-Grade Book Project through Greater Mankato United Way, funded by the Olseth Family Foundation,” Said Greater Mankato United Way director Barb Kaus “We’re so very blessed to have the Olseth family foundation come along with us and support the importance of literacy. Literacy is our number one focuses that we have to making sure children are prepared to get ready for school and this is an addition to now fourth graders get to have a beautiful book given to them because of the generous hearts of the Olseth foundation.”

When individuals want to donate or volunteer, the Greater Mankato United Way does what is known as Connecting and Convening, where they find a match for the person’s donation or volunteer time.

A big thank you to the Olseth Family Foundation, Greater Mankato United Way and all of the volunteers for helping out and promoting literacy. Teachers, you are doing an outstanding job with the students – they are great readers. Washington fourth graders – you did a fantastic job reading – keep up the great work over the summer!

There are more photos of the event on the Mankato Times Facebook page.

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