Happily Ever After

Without the Elementary Library Grant, which has been awarded through the Foundation of Monroe County Community Schools for more than a decade, MCCSC media specialists wouldn’t be able to afford to add as many new books to their libraries.

Through the years, Monroe County Community School Corp. media specialists have wondered who the donor is that’s given at least $10,000 a year to fund the grant program. But Mary Hawkins, the donor and a retired teacher, didn’t want the notoriety. She said now she wants to share her story, hoping it might inspire other people to contribute.

In December, Hawkins and her husband, Kem Hawkins, former president of Cook Group Inc., gave a large donation to the Happily Ever After Endowment Fund that will continue the grant program in perpetuity.

“A dream of helping these children learn to read at an early age is so they can have a happily ever after life,” Hawkins said. “That was kind of the impetus for the library grant.”

According to Cyrilla Helm, executive director of the Foundation of Monroe County Community Schools, the Hawkins have given the largest philanthropic pledge to the foundation since it was established in 1972.

“Over this span from 2005 forward, they pledged half a million dollars to the foundation,” Helm said. “It’s something from a philanthropy standpoint that is just huge for the school system and will make this something that can continue to carry forward.”

Growing up, Hawkins said she loved to read Louisa May Alcott’s books, specifically the Little Women series, while at her grandparents’ house in Kentucky. She still has her grandma’s copies and remembers the excitement of turning the page to find out what would happen next. Before getting involved in the Title I reading program in the MCCSC, Hawkins taught in the Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corp. and then took time off to raise her children for 12 years. She worked in the MCCSC for a decade and retired in 1998.

“A lot of the children that we worked with didn’t have their own books at home, so it was important to be able to have books for them at the libraries that they would want to take home and learn to read with,” Hawkins said.

All 14 elementary schools in the MCCSC are eligible for the grants each year. Jeri Betar, media specialist at Lakeview Elementary School, said she and other media specialists in the school district work with teachers to request books that support classroom curriculum. Betar started as the media specialist at Lakeview in 2005, the same year the grants became available. She’s applied every year since.

“All of these books are really helpful for kids that really need help reading,” said Kennedy Casebeer, a second grader at Lakeview. “There are all different sizes of these books. We, kids that go to the library, are really interested in what new books are here and exciting things that are new.”

That’s what she wished the donor, who she said she’s thankful for, knew. She paused to pull a book from a series off the shelf.

“Like these books I haven’t checked out and they look amazing,” she said.

Hawkins said she feels like it’s really important to learn how to read at a young age.

“I read book after book after book and I loved to turn the page and see what was going to happen on the next page,” Hawkins said. “I guess I just have that desire for other young kids to be that excited about picking up a book and reading.”

Hawkins said she remembers when Highland Park Elementary School and Templeton Elementary School were built and looking in the library and seeing empty shelves and a lot of old books. Helm and Hawkins said when the program started, the average age of books in the MCCSC elementary schools was about 23 years old.

“It just touched me that how are we going to get kids interested in reading if they don’t see what’s new and exciting and bookshelves full,” Hawkins said. “That was a big push for me then to start this program.”

On Thursday afternoon, students in the Lakeview library were drawn to the brand new hardcover books that the grant provided this school year. Betar said the donor really has made a difference.

“It’s meant a lot,” Betar said. “We are very thankful for that. It allows me to enrich and expand, maybe go a little deeper.”

Betar said she has found ways to make her budget work, aiming to replace classics and keep up with what’s current, but the grant allows her to do more. Kids like to read together, she said, and the Elementary Library Grant has given her the opportunity to get multiple copies of the same book for that purpose.

Hawkins said while people can access books online and learn to read that way, she hopes the old-fashioned way of holding a book in your hand doesn’t die out. Young students shared her sentiment.

“I like to read, it inspires me because there’s something to do and it’s not just something boring, it’s something a lot of kids like,” Kennedy said. “I enjoy it because it’s something you can do on planes and it doesn’t take any WiFi or anything. You can just take a book and read it.”

When Betar writes her grant proposal each year, she’s careful to be economical and practical in her requests, often wanting to purchase hardcover books.

“I use them until they fall apart,” Betar said. “Kids love books and in the elementary library, obviously books are going to get worn out.”

Helm said media specialists know to keep their requests at around $1,000, and Betar said sometimes she’s gotten more money than she asked for. Helm said that’s just the kind of person Hawkins is. Mary and Kem Hawkins started out donating about $10,000 a year to the grant.

“Then I would go over a little bit, especially as the price of books started increasing,” Hawkins said.

In 2010, a year of severe funding cuts for education in Indiana, Kem and Mary awarded the grant twice, fearing that media specialists could be cut.

“It’s an amazing testament to their passion and their vision of how they want to see these libraries fully stocked and fully there with vibrant resources so that the kids want to come in,” Helm said.

Over the years, Helm kept Hawkins’ identity anonymous, passing along what media specialists wanted to share.

“One of the happiest days is when I get pictures of the students enjoying their new books,” Hawkins said. “Or I receive their precious thank you notes that say ‘Dear anonymous lady,’ it touches my heart to get those notes and see those pictures. That’s really the only reward I need.”

Hawkins said she hopes people realize how important it is for children to learn to read at a young age.

“It benefits our whole society the more educated our children are,” she said.

Donations to the Foundation of Monroe County Community Schools can be made by check with a note in memo to the Happily Ever After Endowment Fund, mailed to FMCCS, 315 North Drive, Bloomington, IN 47401; or online at mccsfoundation.org.


Contact Emily Cox at 812-331-4243, ecox@heraldt.com or follow @HT_InSchool on Twitter.