Malachi Palmer, a student of St. Gabriel’s Out of School Time (OST) program, helps to paint a new library funded by a literacy grant. An outreach of archdiocesan Catholic Social Services, the 12 OST program sites support more than 700 Philadelphia youth each year. (Photo by Gina Christian)

Kids in Grays Ferry are rolling up their sleeves to build a library of their own, thanks to archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS) and a grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation.

Students of the St. Gabriel’s Out of School Time (OST) Program, a ministry of CSS, recently received a $1,475 grant from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The award will fund the purchase of new books for the center, one of 12 CSS operates throughout Philadelphia.

Established more than 20 years ago, the year-round OST program serves between 700 and 900 at-risk children and teens in grades K through 12 with an array of academic, recreational and social support services. A blend of public and private partnerships funds the OST outreach.

The Dollar General grant marks the kickoff of the library project, an undertaking that the students themselves “have taken ownership of,” said Tori Robson, director of St. Gabriel’s OST site.

On Nov. 15, several of the children grabbed paintbrushes to transform an unused room at St. Gabriel’s Parish School into a customized reading space.

“They even voted on the paint color,” said Robson.


Students have also selected the books that will stock the new collection, and each newly acquired title will be inscribed with the name of the child who chose it. The library, which Robson expects will be completed sometime in 2019, will also feature student artwork, as well as bean bag chairs and decorations selected by the kids.

Since the grant only covers the cost of book purchases, students have organized a number of fundraisers – such as bake sales and holiday events – to complete the renovations.

Sarah Crake, assistant director of St. Gabriel’s Out of School Time (OST) program, reviews a reading list book with student Michael Wharton. One of 12 archdiocesan OST sites, St. Gabriel’s recently received a literacy grant to fund a library, which students are helping to design and decorate. (Gina Christian)

Robson said that the library is part of the OST site’s overall effort to enhance its literacy and arts education.

“We’ve been very STEM-heavy in our approach so far,” she said, referencing the popular acronym for science, technology, engineering and math curriculum offerings.

By providing a “quiet, cozy space,” Robson and her team hope to inspire their students to explore new horizons through books.

Studies indicate that afterschool programs such as the OST outreach provide critical support for childhood literacy, which has languished in many U.S. schools over the past two decades.

Gabby Patrone, a group leader at St. Gabriel’s OST, works closely with students to assess their reading levels, encouraging the children to choose texts that challenge their skills.

Michael Wharton, a fourth-grade student at the site, is a fiction buff – but he has enjoyed reading excerpts from “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which Patrone assigned to the center’s book club members.

Wharton reflected that Frank, a teenage victim of the Holocaust, “was a kid like us.”

Fostering the ability to make such connections through reading is a key objective of the Dollar General grant.

“Our literacy foundation believes in the life-changing power of literacy,” said Denine Torr, senior director of community initiatives for the company. “By providing access to high-quality books and print materials, St. Gabriel’s is opening doorways to a world of opportunity for students.”

Some of those doors may even open to literary careers. In addition to cultivating students’ reading skills, Patrone offers the kids an “author’s chair,” a discussion group that allows students to share their own writing with their peers.

Fourth-grader Kendall Laws, an avid reader who skips play time to leaf through a good novel, is now mulling a career as an author.

“I may write a book someday,” said Laws. “And I may publish one, too.”