Sharing Books: Community Treasure Ryan Sutherland

Cathy Salustri

“My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read.” – Abraham Lincoln
 There’s no way Ryan Sutherland is 17 years old.
 At least, that’s what you think when you first hear him speak. He sounds like an adult, both in his calm, measured words and in his vocabulary choices. After you talk to him for a few minutes, you realize that while Ryan may be 17 years old physically, he has a grasp on life uncommon for a high school senior.
 He started reading before he entered kindergarten and he has yet to stop. He, like many other teens, reads because he enjoys it, not just because his teachers tell him he must. He’ll read anything from science fiction to realistic fiction, and last September he founded a book club, “The Inklings,” at his high school. In addition to reading books, the club enters writing and poetry competitions.
 “When people think of literacy, they think of reading, but writing is an integral part as well,” Ryan explains. Literacy matters to the St. Petersburg High School IB student: he first became aware of the gap in people’s abilities to read and comprehend when he started volunteering with children.
 As a volunteer at the Gulf Beaches public library, the task of determining the “Lexile” level, or age-appropriateness, of children’s books, fell to Ryan. He ranked the books based in part on his own experiences. When he started volunteering with Woodlawn Elementary kindergartners he realized that many children possessed reading skills well below the Lexile level for their age.
 When he came to St. Petersburg High School, he received another surprise: the school offered reading courses in addition to English courses.
 “The reading classes are different,” he says “They’re the remedial track in the fact that they’re trying to produce comprehension.” He didn’t like the idea that fellow classmates associated reading with difficulty.
 Ryan wanted to create an atmosphere where, as he puts it, “students could learn to enjoy reading and not be set apart because they struggled.”
 “I really wanted to get students to know the joys of reading recreationally and not just for school,” he adds. That’s part of the reason he started “The Inklings.”
   In September of this year – Ryan’s last year as a high school student – he decided to hold a book drive to help remedy reading issues he saw in his community. “The Inklings” started a month-and-a-half long book drive with the intent of getting books in the hands of people and children without ready access to books.
 The drive, called “Got Books?”, collected 2700 books. Ryan says 70% of his fellow students – and many of the teachers and faculty – donated the books, which are now at his house, waiting for the book club and Ryan’s Boy Scout troop to distribute them.
 Before Christmas, “The Inklings” will distribute these books to community projects that promote literacy, including Goodwill’s Bookworks, which puts books in the hands of underprivileged children and people who are struggling to learn English, Head Start, All Children’s Hospital and Bay Pines hospital.
 Books for Troops, an organization that sends books to troops overseas, will also receive books from the drive, as will a local chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, an historically black sorority whose sisters will get the books to children in need.
 “Kids who don’t have access to books can have access to them through us,” Ryan says of the drive. He’s proud of what his club has accomplished.
 “It is important that the students who are literate help the students who are struggling,” he says. He says the club has a special interest in getting books to children who are new to the United States and kids whose parents don’t have the money to buy them books.
 Next year Ryan will attend college at either Duke University or the University of Florida. “The Inklings” will continue without him, as will 2700 separate legacies that he and his club mates have left behind.

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