CRESWELL – A giant box the size of a refrigerator has been standing in the halls of Creslane Elementary School, leaving students puzzled and on the edge of their seats to find out what’s inside.
Turns out it was a vending machine, but instead of soda and snacks, this one houses a variety of children’s reading books that are free to students to take home.
On Oct. 26, with the help of “Mighty the Mustang” mascot, the book vending machine was unveiled at a school assembly, followed by resounding big eyes, cheerful grins and squeals from the 500-plus students who attend Creslane.
“It all started when we looked into the amazing statistics of what a difference it makes for young readers to have books at home. With some simple math, we determined that there were a lot of Creswell households without books at home,” said Eric Cullander, co-coordinator for Intergenerational Reading Collaboration (IRC) Program and pioneer of the book vending machine efforts.
The IRC Program supports kindergarten through third grade student reading by sending volunteers during class time to assist teachers in facilitating small reading groups. Volunteers receive training and support with a goal of building strong literacy ability in students by the time they reach fourth grade.
“Learning to read is so important for success as an adult and the vending machine is a great way to get books into houses,” said Cullander.
Since 2017, IRC has facilitated Summer Reading in Harry Holt Park, but Cullander said it only reaches a relatively small segment of the student population, and it doesn’t get books in the home.
After realizing the gravity of need in the Creswell community, Cullander raised his concerns with Amy Halley, Creslane principal. Halley recalled hearing about a book vending machine from a colleague, Ashley Reich, who teaches at Bertha Holt Elementary in Eugene. She mentioned the idea briefly to Cullander, but didn’t think much of it.
“I listened to her and said to myself, ‘Well, we’re going to get one,” Cullander said.
In a matter of a week, Cullander gathered funding through Creswell First! and the Parent Teacher Organization.
“I thought it was just one of those hallway conversations. And then just days later, he told me he got it fully funded.” said Halley.
In addition to Creswell organizations, there were several anonymous donors contributing to the project.
“The credit goes to the community. It took about a week to raise the funds. Creswell First! provided a huge chunk of it but the other portions just kept on coming in. It really resonated with the community,” Cullander said.
In total, the vending machine cost $6,190, with Creswell First! Giving $3,000. The Parent Teacher Organization gave $190, and the remainder was taken care of by four anonymous donors.
Just before the assembly concluded, Halley announced that a handful of students would get to be the first to retrieve a book from the vending machine, prompting teachers to hand out tokens to a handful of students.
“We don’t usually get to see what’s going on as a board,” said Jenni Donley, secretary for Creswell First! “Usually we say ‘yes,’ we give them the check and they report back to us, but this visual report is special, really special.”
When it was time to get a book, the group of lucky kiddos stared through the glass at the books inside, inserting their golden tokens and typing in the code for whichever book they desired.
Reading material in the vending machine included Mo Willems picture books, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, Stuart Little by E.B. White, Holes by Louis Sachar and Magic Treehouse by Mary Pope Osborne.
Cullander’s inspiration behind his work is based on his time teaching. Cullander taught science and CTE at Cottage Grove High School for 11 years, and remembers how difficult it could be to get students excited about learning that were “turned off from school.”
After retiring from Cottage Grove High School in 2015, Cullander knew he wanted to help out the community. He asked himself ‘Where can make the biggest difference?’ and it was with the early learners, he said.
Cullander hopes projects like the vending machine will help minimize the problem of discouraged learners later in life, by teaching students that reading and learning can be fun from a young age.
The vending machine artwork was designed by Cottage Grove High art teacher Dana Combs, former Creslane secretary.
“I wanted something more than just pretty artwork,” Combs said, who designed an eye-catching comic book aesthetic with bright colors and bold outlines. Her drawing features a mustang flying with a cape and reading a book.
“I wanted to let the kids know that reading gives you power to do so much in this world. It opens the doors to so many things,” she said.