On Tuesday morning, the mayor of Olathe had a very important task.
When he sat down before the rapt crowd, a hush fell over the audience. He picked up the important document by his side.
“Bear Country, where the Bear family lived in the big tree house,” Mayor Michael Copeland began reading in an animated voice.
A dozen pairs of young eyes stared back at him, mesmerized. The group of children remained well-behaved throughout the entire book, “The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food.”
The mayor’s story-time at Whole Foods in Olathe was a special treat for the little ones.
And it really was an important task for Copeland. It marked the official kick-off of the upcoming school year’s “I Read with Mayor Mike” program, a literary initiative in its 10th year that’s very dear to the mayor’s heart.
Each year, Copeland visits all 10 Title 1 elementary schools in Olathe and reads to first-grade students. He also distributes paperback books, book bags and stickers. During his story-time, he emphasizes that reading is an important part of good citizenship and brings life-long rewards. At Title 1 schools, at least 40 percent of the student body comes from low-income families.
The program reaches about 625 Olathe first-graders each year.
Copeland started the program in 2005 to help children realize reading is the key to success.
“Reading skills are vital to success in so many aspects of life,” said Copeland. “There are very few of society’s ills that can’t be solved through good education. As a community, we never waver in our fundamental commitment to quality education. I believe we are all stewards of our most precious resource — our children, and together, we shoulder the incredibly important responsibility for preparing our youth for tomorrow.”
The program is a partnership between the city, the school district and several community sponsors, including Whole Foods.
This year, the book Copeland will be reading at the schools is “Dog and Bear — Two Friends, Three Stories” by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.
At each school, Copeland randomly draws the names of two students to ride with him on his “I Read with Mayor Mike” parade float in the annual Johnson County Old Settlers Parade in downtown Olathe on Sept. 12.
The story-time and the float both offer lifetime memories for the kids, said city officials.
“We know that students who spend more time reading become better readers, and students find motivation in Mayor Copeland’s message about reading,” said Karen Hooven, the assistant to the mayor. “‘I Read with Mayor Mike’ is making a positive difference in our diverse Title 1 schools, where a significant impact can be made on literacy at the first-grade level.”
The program has huge fans in the school district as well.
Dawn Mercer, the library media specialist for Ridgeview and Northview elementary schools, said the mayor’s visit has become a tradition she looks forward to each year.
“The kids get a kick out of being with him,” she said. “He answers all of their questions and makes them feel special. It really does mean a lot to them.”
The feeling is mutual.
“The children are eager to hear my message and are so easy to inspire — I love their energy, and it’s so rewarding to see the looks on their faces,” Copeland said. “I ask them to help me make Olathe a ‘City of Readers,’ and they promise to do their part.”
Sponsors of the program include the Olathe Rotary Club, Wal-Mart, Farmers Insurance, Cintas Corporation and Olathe Medical Center.
This year, Whole Foods became a new sponsor.
As part of its grand opening, as a gift to the community and a tie-in to the “I Read with Mayor Mike” program, the Olathe Whole Foods is donating Little Free Libraries to 10 elementary schools in the city, said Valerie Reed, the store’s marketing and community relations specialist. They will be filled with books on healthy eating.
Having the mayor conduct story-time for the Whole Foods Kids Club — a morning program that also holds cooking classes and crafts for children — was a perfect fit, said Reed.
Parents thought so, too.
“Meeting the mayor doesn’t happen every day, so we’re all very excited,” said Holly So, an Olathe mom who brought her three sons to the event. “I think it’s wonderful he’s using his leadership position to be a good role model for kids. That’s a big deal.”
The mayor’s message about the benefits of reading is an important one for all children, the parents agreed.
“With all the technology available to kids these days, it’s becoming harder and harder to encourage them to read,” said Mina Akula, an Overland Park mother of two. “I wish more kids would realize there’s no video game in the world that compares to a good book.”