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Quilt commemorates Baltimore County Summer Reading Program to a 'T'

A success story ought to be commemorated.

For decades, the Baltimore County Public Library system has drawn tens of thousands of kids to its Summer Reading Program. More sign up as summer bookworms every year.

How do you make something tangible to celebrate a program that has lasted so long that one-time reading program kids are now parents signing up the next generation?

A quilt would work.

Such a quilt hangs each summer in the White Marsh Library, the product of years of work by Susan Koenig, a retired county elementary school library media specialist who now works as a part-time circulation assistant at the library. The quilt has been her ongoing project for nine years.

"I am happy to keep doing this as long as they want it," said Koenig, of Perry Hall.

Each year the Summer Reading Program includes a new T-shirt, usually featuring the mascot, Sneaks, a frisky cartoon cat. Working the last 16 years of her teaching career at Joppaview Elementary School, Koenig was directly involved in the program.

"Each year I got a T-shirt, so I had them," she said.

Those T-shirts are now the centerpieces of quilted squares that Koenig sewed together in a banner that now wraps around the inside wall of the White Marsh Library. (A different quilt made from 20 T-shirts by JoAnn Stelmack, a media specialist at Chesapeake High School, currently hangs in the Towson Library.)

Koenig said her sewing abilities are modest, and she still uses her 1975 Kenmore sewing machine. She's made a few other quilts, she said, but the library quilt is by far her biggest project.

The story of the program behind the quilt is one that the library system takes pride in.

Origins are hard to pin down. Bob Hughes, library spokesman, said various branches operated their own summer reading programs as far back as the 1950s. The program went systemwide in the 1970s, and statistics began to be tallied in 1986, the year Sneaks was introduced.

Record growth

Hughes said this year's sign-ups set an all-time record of 48,413, which broke last year's record of 45,971.

Although there's been a few exceptions, "the trend since the 1980s has been steadily upward," Hughes said.

The Summer Reading Program, which began in June and continues through the end of summer, is administered by the library system's Youth Services Department. Marissa Conners, department head, said the benefits of keeping kids reading over the summer are extraordinary.

"It's more beneficial than going to summer school," she said.

Conners said a key to the program's success is its strong partnership with local schools, public and private.

"Our county librarians work directly with the schools and their libraries. They help get the kids registered in the program," she said.

This year's turnout is described as phenomenal.

"We are seeing numbers we never saw before," she said. "We are actually running out of completion prizes and have to get more."

The county library system has even been handed the responsibility of coordinating Summer Reading Programs statewide, she said.

Student power

Another big contributor to the program's success is an army of middle-schoolers.

This year, 541 middle-school students can be found sitting at desks in county libraries,where they work as volunteers explaining the program to other students, answering questions, signing up participants and monitoring progress. They are also earning hours toward the state-required 75 service-learning hours for graduation.

From 2008 to 2011, student volunteers have worked more than 10,000 hours each summer, according to library officials.

These young volunteers are growing in ways other than sharper reading ability.

The kids "often discover talents, strengthen skills, meet mentors, build self confidence and identify career choices," said Sean Patterson, the library system's service-learning assistant.

Behind a desk at the White Marsh Library on July 13 was Kyle Grace, 13, a student at Perry Hall Middle School. It's his second year as a volunteer.

"It's fun. You get to meet all these different people," said the rising eighth-grader.

Kyle showed the materials he hands out. At the core of the program is a score card where participants list up to 16 books they have read over the summer. He also has drawers full of gifts and prizes to hand out.

Completing the checklist can mean prizes ranging from meals at Subway, Baysox tickets or free books from Barnes & Noble.

Kyle described himself as a committed reader, especially books on history. His last book was "Chasing Lincoln's Killer" by James L. Swanson, and he is working his way through "The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake."

But aren't kids today living in a digital bubble, more interested in games and texting than putting their nose in a book?

"I used to play my xBox a lot during the summer. Now I read more," Kyle said.

Everywhere the program goes you will find depictions of Sneaks.

Prior to Sneaks, the program had a series of mascots that included Inspector McBone (a dog), BCPL Bear, Fact-Man, Informo the Robot and Champ Chicken.

Sneaks debuted in 1986, originated by graphic artist Tom Sollers, according to Youth Services head Conners. His first appearance found him wearing surfing "jam" shorts and red high-top sneakers.

Each year the cartoon cat reappears on T-shirts, banners and websites with a new theme. He has been a rock star, a safari explorer, a race car driver, an astronaut and an Old West pioneer. He has cavorted with dinosaurs, mummies and the Red Baron.

Sneaks in all his guises is at the White Marsh Library this summer and will remain until the program ends in September.

White Marsh Library is located at 8133 Sandpiper Circle.

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