MANKATO — Jon Olseth read poems from his aged, worn Shel Silverstein book to Roosevelt Elementary fourth-graders Monday. Then he helped distribute shiny new copies to all the students.

The 90 or so donated hardcovers are part of a 1,450-book donation to fourth-graders at 24 public and private schools across the region. The Olseth Family Foundation provided a $12,000 grant to the Greater Mankato Area United Way for the books, which the partners plan to continue each year.

Olseth, a poetry professor, said he got the idea for the distribution years ago when his son came home from school with Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk End.” The family had the old tattered copy of the book already, but Olseth noticed how excited his son was to have his own version.

“Having a book you can call your own, it’s a different relationship,” he said.

So he brought his grant idea to the United Way. The Rotary had done a similar donation in the past, which Olseth hoped to start back up.

United Way CEO Barb Kaus said the project was a great fit, as literacy promotion is a core piece of her nonprofit’s mission.

“Literacy is a big part of what we do, making sure children have the tools they need,” she said.

The United Way arranged the donations at area schools this spring. At each stop Olseth read a few of his favorite selections, followed by the distribution, then students taking their turn to read.

Fourth-grader Kailee Smith bravely went first in the Roosevelt gymansium, reading “Jimmy Jet and his TV Set.”

“It’s actually funny because he turns into a TV because he watches TV all the time,” she said of the poem.

Like Olseth, Smith has a copy of Silverstein’s book at home. She said the new one will allow her younger brother to have his own copy.

Watching the students’ reactions once the books were handed out, Roosevelt Principal Ann Haggerty said some of the children will likely hold onto the book throughout their lives just like Olseth did.

“Anytime we can get books in the hands of kids and continue to build that love of literacy, it’s priceless,” she said. “ … These books could be with these kids for a lifetime.”

Olseth said some of the children kept asking if they could really bring the book home. Seeing how excited they were about books and poetry, he said, is the best part of the project.

“This is all about sharing poetry,” he said. “We plan on doing this every year together. We want it to become a legacy program through United Way.”

Roosevelt was the first elementary to receive the books in Mankato this spring. Nine more will receive the books next.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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