Student support staff in Saint Leo's Center for Online Learning reach out to much younger students than usual to assist in their educational journey.

Hold up a shiny new copy of the beloved book "Chicka Chicka Boom Boom" in front of St. Peter Claver's kindergarten class, and students' exuberance is spontaneous.

The 5 and 6-year olds squeal with delight.

Third-graders at the school, on the other hand, simply beam over new books about favorite characters such as Junie B. Jones and Flat Stanley – and are eager to demonstrate their reading skills.

Thanks to the generosity of Saint Leo employees in the Center for Online Learning (COL), elementary students at the historic downtown Tampa school have 278 books to add to their classroom libraries, 227 of them brand new and 51 gently read – every book on their recent wish list – and then some.

"I have never seen a donation of books this large," says Jennifer Smiley St. Peter Claver reading coach.

"Resources are always a challenge for us. And the timing is perfect. By this time of the school year, the children have read through most of the books in their classrooms. So to receive a fresh supply of books keeps them excited about reading."

Established to serve the children of low-income African American families in 1896, just a few years following Saint Leo's founding, St. Peter Claver accepts all children regardless of academic ability or behavior – and, similar to Saint Leo, believes in providing a solid moral foundation. The school relies on private donations and tuition, and many students who come from challenging home lives receive state scholarships targeted for low-income families.

"We have a lot of high-needs students here. And the reading abilities of our elementary students have a huge range," says Jennifer.

An idea with impact

The idea to conduct a book drive for St. Peter Claver students began with Enrollment Counselor Daniel Stutzman. Aware of the school's needs, he presented the opportunity to the COL Library Committee. Committee members Cindy Crist and Jessica Graves – joined by Carly Luke, Debby Rumsey and Tricia Van Der Vaart from the Community Service Committee – promoted the drive and collected money, while Dan reached out to the school and Jennifer for a list of books.

Once all the books had been delivered to the school, which is just three miles from Saint Leo's building in Tampa, committee members visited to spend a morning reading with students.

"Everyone in COL is so generous," says Dan. "We were able to purchase every single book on the school's wish list. And then watching the children's excitement and reaction on their faces took it to another level. The teachers so appreciated the book drive and the children were excited about having new books to read."

"The success of this drive was due to the continued generosity and compassion of Saint Leo employees," says Tricia Van Der Vaart, assistant director of financial aid support and co-chair of the Community Service Committee. "Helping members of our community is always rewarding. And this service activity was especially fun because many people have a favorite book from childhood and they were able to share that book with another child."

Putting Saint Leo core values into action

Serving the local community is nothing new for members of Saint Leo's Student Support Staff. Throughout the year, employee-run committees spearhead numerous outreach activities that reflect their commitment to the university's core values: Excellence, Community, Respect, Personal Development, Responsible Stewardship and Integrity.

Adopting families through Catholic Charities' Foundations of Life Pregnancy Center at Christmas. Collecting barrels of food for Metropolitan Ministries at Thanksgiving. Donating school supplies to inner-city youth or personal care items to military service members. Rallying to support local families when their homes are destroyed by fire.

Student Support Center staff members give from the heart year round.

"The Community Service committee is always mindful of Saint Leo's core values," says Tricia. "Obviously, the core value of Community is right in our name. Throughout the year, we try to support local charitable organizations that we feel Saint Leo employees can make a real difference in their day to day operations."

"The drive was worth it and more," says Dan. "I hope we can do more in the future. Some of those kids could be future Saint Leo students and alumni."

One potential Saint Leo Lion is third-grader is Najaeh, who says he loves to read.

"When I started third grade I was reading at a kindergarten level. Now my teacher says I'm almost at a fourth-grade level," he says proudly.

"I read to get better."

Images (top to bottom) feature Saint Leo employees: Dan Stutzman, Jessica Graves, Cindy Crist, Carly Luke and Debby Rumsey

Image credits: Saint Leo University

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

Touching Lives Online -- And Down The Street

Center For Online Learning Volunteers Lend A Hand -- And Some Muscle

Saint Leo Online Degree Programs Rank Among U.S. News Best

12 Support Services For Online Degree Students [Infographic]