The People We Serve — Spotlight on: Tasia Hammond

The People We Serve — Spotlight on: Tasia Hammond

Tashia Hammond and her mom Cleopatra Hammond

Tasia Hammond (right) and her mom Cleopatra Hammond at the Jersey Explorers Children's Museum in East Orange.

Tasia Hammond, a ninth grader at the Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, is a voracious reader. Her favorite is manga, Japanese adventure comics.  She wants to be an animator when she graduates college.

Books have always been important to Tasia, the youngest of three. Her parents, both teachers, taught her to read when she was still a toddler and encouraged her get a library card when she was nine. But the first books the 14-year-old remembers actually owning came from Bridge of Books Foundation.

Tasia spotted a table of books on an after school visit to the Jersey Explorer Children’s Museum, across the street from her elementary school in East Orange.

“I said ‘are these books free?’” she laughed incredulously. “I took like seven books!”

The outgoing teenager returned almost every week, often bringing friends. She knocked on the door when it was closed. She had to explain to her mother how she acquired so many new volumes.

“She was like the Pied Piper of books,” Gary Patnosh, the energetic and teacherly co-director of the museum, said with evident pride.

Housed in a former library, the museum is designed and run by the NJ Youth Corps, a government-funded program that coaches at-risk people ages 16 to 25 to perform service projects. The NJ Youth Corps also helps with job training and education, among other things.

Isaiah, Joshad & Jamir

From left Jamir Giles, Joshad Vasaro and Isaiah Moore choose from an array of free books donated by Bridge of Books to the Jersey Explorer Children's Museum.

Visitors to the museum are funneled through a warren of rooms cleverly outfitted with actors, and period details to recreate an emotional moment from history. One is a church basement in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights struggle, which, visitors are told, is subsequently bombed. One is a hideout on the underground railway made pricklingly real with farming implements, actors dressed as runaway slaves and the yowls of tracking dogs in the distance.

The museum is also used as a venue for neighborhood events like First Friday, a monthly gathering for preteens.

Mr. Patnosh has received thousands of books from Bridge of Books over the past eight years. He displays them in the museum lobbies and encourages children to take them as they leave.

In return, volunteers from NJ Youth Corps help BoB by distributing books to community groups throughout the state.

Sahalii, Dijirare and Jalyn

Sahalii Isaac, Dijirare Young and Jalyn Bakers show of their new books donated by Bridge of Books to the Jersey Explorers Children's Museum in East Orange.

On one recent visit to the museum, Isaiah Moore, a bespectacled 12-year-old, seemed paralyzed by choice. He finally settled on a Star Wars novel, examining it minutely, then began to read it, still standing in the hallway.

“The books from here serve so many children throughout the community,” said East Orange Councilwoman Andrea McPhatter. “They really depend on them. When I tell you how far-reaching your efforts are, you’d really be surprised.”

Tasia explained what the program means to her:

“There are a lot of children whose parents can’t afford to get a book,” she said. “They are really missing out.  Books to me are like a chance for a kid to go on an adventure. You just go to faraway places. But it’s not only imagination. It is knowledge.”

This article was written by Kirsty Sucato, a freelance writer and BoB volunteer. Photos are courtesy of Mary Ann Rounseville.