On a chilly but sunny Saturday afternoon in February, the Dream Express bookmobile pulled into the parking lot at Family Fun Café and Ice Cream in Radcliffe, Kentucky, where the bookmobile’s operators, Lynette Ward and her husband, David, were greeted excitedly by a diminutive 7-year-old named Kendra. “Goodness gracious, I saw you all get here, and I ran over as fast as I could!” she told them. One hour later, Kendra departed with a bag full of books and bookmarks, a VHS tape and a wide smile.
“I’m not solving illiteracy,” Ms. Ward said as she watched Kendra go. “I’m just loving people.”
Actually, she is likely doing both. By providing free books to children who have few—or none—of their own, Ms. Ward ’04/MAT ’07, an instructional coach at Bullitt Lick Middle School in Shepherdsville, is also giving them an invaluable educational boost. “I believe that literacy is a key to escape poverty, and that books give kids an escape from their lives and a view of a life they would not ordinarily see,” she said. “Books give us dreams for our futures.”
It’s estimated that 40 percent of working-age adults in Kentucky have low literacy skill levels—including 14 percent who have no, or virtually no, reading ability. Such deficits are likely to impede employment opportunities and personal advancement. Furthermore, according to recent data, 26 percent of the state’s children live in poverty. “They are part of families who face myriad challenges—being able to take full advantage of educational opportunities is one of them,” says Dr. Winn Wheeler, an assistant professor of graduate education in Bellarmine’s Annsley Frazier Thornton School of Education. “Access to books in the home makes a profound impact on students’ educational success.”
Fairdale native Lynette Byerle (Terrell) Ward, who has two young children of her own, was a nontraditional Bellarmine student. She graduated with a BA in Liberal Studies one month before her 30th birthday and then pursued her personal dream of becoming a teacher by earning a Master of Arts in Teaching from Bellarmine’s School of Education three years later. “I was greatly influenced by the late Dr. Adam Renner, who taught me the importance of having empathy for others in difficult situations,” she said. “When I left his class, I felt like I could make a difference in the world.”
In 2013, Ms. Ward took postgraduate Literacy Specialist classes at the University of Louisville, where she met Dr. Wheeler, who taught at U of L before coming to Bellarmine. “I learned about how she had been volunteering with a friend who operated a mobile clothing closet [Klothe-A-Kid] and was inspired when there was a box of books to offer one day,” Dr. Wheeler recalled. “She took over the books and read them with kids who had come with their parents to get clothing. In this action, she discovered a mission that was close to her heart and interests—connecting kids and books.”
From that inspiration, the Dream Express was born, funded mainly by Ms. Ward, her husband and several unexpected donations. The couple purchased the used church bus with a grant through Staples in 2014. “My husband, an excellent mechanic, had to completely rebuild the engine to get it running,” Ms. Ward said. “Then he remodeled and repurposed the interior.” Mr. Ward lamented that the bus still needs a generator and an air-conditioning unit to heat and cool the vehicle for comfortable year-round use.
“I think the Dream Express has been in the works in my life for many years,” Ms. Ward said. “When I was young, I remember Mom taking my sister and me into Fairdale to visit the Louisville Free Public Library Bookmobile. I loved going onto their bookmobile and checking out books. When I started driving at 16, one of my favorite places was the Iroquois branch library. I just love to be surrounded by books.”
Activities during a Dream Express visit vary. “If I am serving in a community and the weather is nice, I take a large carpet and some bean bags and set up a reading area,” Ms. Ward said. “I also will set up a picnic table with fun family games or activities. In the past, we have set up stations to decorate pumpkins and Christmas cookies. If I have volunteers, they are usually in these areas to read with kids or play educational games. My husband and I are on the bus helping kids find books that interest them or talking to parents about the importance of reading.”
Bookmobiles typically work like libraries, with visitors checking out books and returning them on a subsequent visit. But the Wards allow children to keep the books permanently. “If I am serving in an impoverished community, I do not limit the number of books that children take,” Ms. Ward said. “I usually have plastic bags, and I allow children and parents to take as many books as they can carry.”
While middle school-aged children might act uninterested in the books, Ms. Ward is usually able to persuade them to take something home. “Young kids love reading, and they are very excited to find books,” she said. Her favorite reaction involved a young boy who was looking for a dinosaur book. “When he found one, he turned around and said to me, ‘I love you!’”
Ms. Ward’s efforts are important, Dr. Wheeler said. “She is putting books in the hands of children who may not otherwise own a book. Accessing books is an important step towards literacy and ultimately success in life.”
Some educators, in fact, hold the theory that literacy is the gateway to democracy, because people cannot fully participate in our society if they can’t read well. “My goal in my classroom, as well as on the Dream Express, is to level the playing field among students,” Ms. Ward says. “I want to give all children access to education so they will understand the world around them, and then explore it, for the betterment of humanity.”
The continued success of the Dream Express depends on contributions of books and money and on volunteer services. For more information, contact Lynette Ward at DreamExpressBooks@gmail.com
By Harry Rothgerber ’69
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar