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DeJean library

With the budget tight, Richmond middle school librarian crowd funds for books

on November 30, 2021

In 2019, after eight years as an English teacher at Richmond High School, Rebekah Ponce-Larsen was excited to start a new job as a librarian at Lovonya DeJean Middle School. Being a librarian, she thought, would give her an opportunity to work with kids but in a different way.

“I have more time to get to know individual students sometimes than teachers do,” she said.

It’s through that personal relationship with students that Ponce-Larsen has transformed the library at DeJean, all while using funds she raises through crowdsourcing. 

For the past 10 years, the library has received an annual budget of $3,000 from the West Contra Costa School District for new books. But that funding isn’t guaranteed.

Over the last two years, Ponce-Larsen has turned to DonorsChoose.org, which connects teachers to the public to support classroom projects. She’s used the website to buy the books that students want to read. 

DeJean library
Rebekah Ponce-Larsen is the librarian at Lovonya DeJean Middle School in Richmond. (Linus Unah)

Last year, Ponce-Larsen raised $805 and used the money to create a new graphic novel section in the library. She wanted to build out the library’s graphic novel collection after hearing feedback from students.

 “It’s super important to make sure that I can provide books that are accessible and interesting to the students,” Ponce-Larsen  said. “If a kid is actually taking the time to request a book that they might actually be excited to read, I gotta get that book for them.”

About 50% of student requests are for graphic novels, Ponce-Larsen said, adding that when she started, the library’s graphic novel options were very limited.  

Most of her students are from Central America and are learning English as a second language. But a number of the library’s Spanish-language books were old and hadn’t been checked out for more than a decade, Ponce-Larsen said. And most of the students have a predilection for anime and manga, Japanese comics that are a subculture in some Latin American countries.

Last August, amid a wave of requests for anime novels from students, Ponce-Larsen used the Nextdoor app to ask people in the neighborhood if they had used anime novels they could donate.

“Four different people sent me new anime books, and one person donated $1,000,” she said with a smile.

In the past year, Ponce-Larsen raised more than $1,700 to buy books, including picture books for special needs middle schoolers. 

“Her commitment to the growth of our library and creating opportunities for our students to find books that touch their heart, grow their imagination and intrigue their mind is a wonderful thing,” said Bernard Brown II, DeJean’s principal, who applauds Ponce-Larsen’s crowdsourcing efforts.

DeJean library
Librarian Rebekah Ponce-Larsen uses crowd funding to buy students at Richmond’s Lovonya DeJean Middle School the books they want to read. (Linus Unah)

On a recent afternoon, Ponce-Larsen examined nearly a dozen yellow slips of paper that students had written their book requests on. A rainbow flag hung a few feet above her head. “NO HATE ZONE” posters were tacked to the walls around the library. Ponce-Larsen said she tries to make the library a happy and inviting place for children. 

It’s a place where eighth grader Anahi Ruiz Moncada feels comfortable and likes to visit. She  said Ponce-Larsen is kind, accepting and good at explaining things. “I feel like I can trust her, so I’m not afraid to ask questions,” Anahi said. 

That’s high praise for Ponce-Larsen, who wants students to see the library as an oasis. To feel, she said, “like it’s a place they can go to kind of escape from all the outside noise and hustle and bustle and drama, and kind of just get away from it all and escape in the space, feel safe, feel excited to read.”

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