Spread the word and the effect amazes

By Joanna Mathers

Ghetto kid turned presidential hopeful Ben Carson is in New Zealand to help celebrate as the Duffy Books in Homes scheme turns 20

Novelist Alan Duff says the delight on children's faces when new books arrive tells him the scheme is doing great work. Photo / Duncan Brown
Novelist Alan Duff says the delight on children's faces when new books arrive tells him the scheme is doing great work. Photo / Duncan Brown

It was a piece of rock that sealed the deal. When the teacher asked the students in her inner-city classroom what type of rock she was holding, no one knew the answer — except Ben Carson.

"Obsidian?" he ventured. He was right. "I was the only one who knew that it was obsidian. It came from all the reading I had started doing. That was a turning point for me. That's the moment I went from a reluctant to an enthusiastic reader."

Carson was a ghetto kid growing up in inner-city Detroit in 1950s America. The son of an under-educated single woman, he was failing at school.

He had a violent, uncontrollable temper, often lashing out at fellow students at the slightest provocation.

He was at the bottom of the class, pitied and ridiculed, another hopeless kid in the urban sprawl of a harsh city.

His mum, Sonya, had to work two, sometimes three, jobs to support Ben and his older brother, Curtis. She would go from job to job to make ends meet; sometimes working up to 18 hours a day.

He was in danger of disappearing into the morass of urban poverty when something remarkable happened. He discovered books.

It was his mother's doing. Fearful for her sons' futures, she decided to change what was happening in her household. So every week she would get two books from the library and give them to her sons to read.

"My mother was a domestic servant," he says. "She noticed that the wealthy people she worked for spent a lot of time reading and owned lots of books. She made us turn off the television and we had to turn in two book reports to her each week."

His mother had left school at an early age and couldn't read what her sons wrote. But she pretended to, scanning the pages and ticking the margins above the reports.

At first, the strict reading regime annoyed Carson, who wanted to be outside playing with his friends on the street. But, eventually, the books started to work their magic.

"I discovered that a whole new world could open up to me," he says.

Carson is now 62. He is a retired neurosurgeon, the first to perform a separation of conjoined twins joined at the head. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, the highest award for a civilian in the United States. A movie about him (Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story) starring Cuba Gooding jnr, was released in 2009.

Carson is being courted by the Republican Party to run against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections.

He will be the keynote speaker at a charity auction and dinner held for Duffy Books in Homes in Auckland on Thursday. The dinner commemorates the 10 millionth book distributed through the scheme, and its 20-year anniversary.

He was here to raise money for the programme in 2012 and is back because he believes it provides an essential service to the community. "Any programme — and this one is no exception — that encourages reading is positive because it empowers people. "

Carson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008. Photo / AP

Over the past 20 years, Duffy Books in Homes has provided books for almost 530 low-decile schools and 220 early childhood centres. Founder Alan Duff says even after two decades, children's reaction to the books always delights him.

"I never tire of it," he says. "The joy I feel when I see the children's reaction has never diminished. Even the toughest kids show such delight when their books arrive."

Duff, a novelist who is best-known for his book Once Were Warriors, founded Duffy Books in Homes in 1994. He had been a guest at Camberley School in Hastings, and quickly realised very few students at the school had books in their homes.

"I wondered why I, an author, would be celebrated when I knew damn well that these kids had no books in their own homes. The programme started at that moment."

He was a syndicated columnist and put out a call to his readers to send in books for the school. "There was a great response," he said. "But when I brought the books in boxes to the kids at the school it was one big yawn. Everything they had was second-hand — it was just repeating the cycle."

He contacted his agent, the influential editor and publisher Ray Richards, and asked if he could help.

Richards sent a box of new books to the school: the children's reaction was overwhelmingly positive.

"They were delighted. I realised new books were the key," says Duff.

Books have the ability to develop a child's imagination, says Duff.

With help from key sponsors such as Mainfreight ("you can't mention Books in Homes without referring to Mainfreight," says Duff) the Duffy Books in Homes scheme developed.

All the books are provided by Scholastic and the children can choose from a catalogue which is sent to the schools three times a year.

Duff says the key to the power of books is their ability to develop the child's imagination.

"When you are eating food off your knees and sleeping on a mattress on the floor, imagination can take you up to the clouds."

He says books also provided much needed positive stimulation.

"When kids are in an environment that's not stimulating, their imagination just wilts. A flower needs water, and imagination needs nurturing."

It's not only children who benefit from the programme; parental engagement with their children's education has also been improved.

"The parents love the programme," he says. "Attendance at parent-teacher meetings has lifted since the programme began. And I get gang members approaching me thanking me for their kids' books."

Duff came from a book-oriented home. His father was an avid reader, sharing books and stories of the war with his family. This was uncommon for families in the family's area.

"I was brought up in state housing. Not many of the other kids had access to books," says Duff. "We had encyclopaedias. I learned that the whole world could be found within the pages of books."

Because he was brought up to revere the written word, he always understood how powerful books were. Through Duffy Books in Homes, he has seen this manifest in distinct ways. He feels the more sophisticated vocabulary learned through reading teaches young people to articulate the truth of their own lives.

"Instead of grunting, they learn how to use stories and metaphors to explain situations. It's very powerful."

Carson's involvement with Duffy Books in Homes began when Kevin Drinkwater, the head of Mainfreight's technology division, read an article about the influence books had on Carson's early life. He wrote to Carson, who was impressed with the programme. Duff flew to the United States to meet him and a relationship was formed.

Carson will travel around the country, meeting children and parents in Christchurch and attending an event hosted by Education Minister Hekia Parata in Parliament.

"Books greatly broadened my perspective. Between the covers of books I could travel anywhere in the world.

"By using books and my imagination, I was able to escape my environment and create a dream to which I could aspire."

'It felt like Christmas' — doorway to a new world

Ropitini grew up in a home where books were a luxury. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

Charles Ropitini was at Camberley School in Hastings when Alan Duff made his first visit.

Ropitini was 10 and clearly remembers the assembly 20 years ago at which Duff, All Black Zinzan Brooke and young people's advocate Henare O'Keefe announced the launch of Duffy Books in Homes. "I was really impressed by that," he says.

At the end of the assembly, all the children present were given books. Ropitini was the first to receive one.

"Sadly, I can't remember what it was. The excitement of the day probably took away from the actual book."

Ropitini, his sister Grace and his brother Abraham were brought up in a home where books were a luxury. He remembers the Scholastic catalogue being handed out at school, and the disappointment of looking through it and knowing his family could not afford the books.

His early engagement with reading wasn't a positive experience.

"I was in remedial reading," he says. "We had these boring books that we had to carry around in a book bag. It was all so monotonous."

The launch of Duffy Books in Homes changed all that.

"The books were new and they were ours," he says. "We got to choose them ourselves. When they arrived it felt like Christmas."

His eyes were soon opened to the wonders of the written word. "It was so wonderful being able to read and comprehend words on a page."

As well as the three-time-a-year delivery of book catalogues, Ropitini also fondly remembers the Caught Being Good Award.

"Students would nominate other students for doing good things — picking up rubbish or stuff like that. At the end of the week the teacher would draw a name out of a hat, and the winner could choose a new book the following week."

This award, he says, engendered a positive spirit among the students.

Favourite books at the time included Grandpa's Slippers, and Margaret Mahey titles. "But my favourite was The Twits by Roald Dahl."

Now 29, Ropitini is still an avid reader.

"Those early years turned me into a bit of a bookworm. I really love reading history — at the moment I'm reading a book called The Changing Face of Maori Leadership. It's about New Zealand politics in the 1850s."

He works for New Zealand Post and manages the community investment and sponsorship portfolios, of which Duffy Books in Homes is a partner.

He will be at the celebration in Wellington and is handing out the 10 millionth book to a Camberley School student at a ceremony at Parliament on Thursday.

Ropitini feels his early engagement with the written world has had a profound effect on him.

"Ultimately, it opened me up to choices. When your imagination is nurtured, you believe that you can turn the contents of your imagination into reality."

• Another Evening with Dr Ben Carson will take place at The Langham, 83 Symonds St, 6.15pm, July 3. Tickets are $250 + GST for individuals, and $2,500 + GST for a table of 10. Proceeds go to Duffy Books in Homes. See booksinhomes.org.nz or phone 0800 383 392.

- Herald on Sunday

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