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Street library fosters love for reading in Treme

On Saturday afternoons, a vacant lot in Treme blossoms into a cheerful children’s reading hub filled with books, blankets and storytellers.

This “street library,” which rolls out at the corner of Urquhart and Annette streets, has been a weekly neighborhood fixture since March, thanks to local volunteers with the “Fourth World Movement,” an international effort that enlists the help of the poor to eradicate the persistent poverty at their doorstep.

By providing children with a positive playtime option, street libraries like the one in Treme, say Fourth World volunteers, are a simple yet powerful means of drawing the poor out of isolation.

“Sometimes it’s not reading the book as much as much as telling the story because the children come with all different reading abilities. What’s important is to develop a love for books,” said Fourth World volunteer and neighborhood resident Maria Sandvik, walking down Annette Street to remind parents and their little ones it was library day.

“The focus is not if the children can read all the words on the page,” Sandvik said. “The idea is to have beautiful, up-to-date storybooks in their hands that they can relate to.”

All are welcome

The volunteers converge at the library site at 3:45 p.m. to set up tarps for shade, lay blankets and set out several crates of children’s books. Children arrive on foot and by bike, taking a seat on the ground or on a brightly painted wooden bench to read with an adult, in pairs with their peers or independently. The library targets pre-readers through sixth graders, but young teens are also welcome to peruse the library’s supply of juvenile literature and magazines.“The kids just love the one-on-one time,” said Sandvik, speaking at the Sept. 10 street library that had about 20 children sprawled across every inch of shaded ground. The children devoured counting books, “I Spy” picture books, and a beginning science volume on human organ systems.

One of the library’s biggest draws was a clever pop-up book that, when deployed, enabled little fingers to move furniture inside the home of “Maisy Mouse.”

Each two-hour library session concludes with a craft activity led by street library coordinator Danielle Ashby, a Treme resident and education student at Southern University of New Orleans. Recently, the youngsters made masks by tracing designs onto canvases of aluminum foil.

“We’re still in the relationship-building stage (with the neighbors), and some people still don’t know who we are,” said Ashby, “but the people who are involved – the kids and their parents – they do love it!”

In state more than 20 years

Launched in 1957 by Father Joseph Wresinski, a French Catholic priest who grew up in chronic poverty, Fourth World stands apart from other anti-poverty programs in its insistence to enlist the input of the poor in shaping the wider society that regularly discounts their potential to contribute.

The movement believes that long-term, relationship-building initiatives such as street libraries are more effective at ending the cycle of poverty than “giveaways” or one-time events that tend to treat only the symptoms of poverty.

“Whatever we do, we make sure activities are planned, carried out and evaluated by the people experiencing poverty, that they’re part of the program,” Sandvik said. “For example, while I may have skills as a teacher and at creating lesson plans, without the parents’ skills and knowing what the children’s struggles are, it’s not effective. My work by myself isn’t going to change anything. (By) working with the parents and community members, things can change.”

Fourth World volunteers began serving in the United States in the mid-1960s, sending its first Louisiana volunteer to Covington in 1987. The Fourth World Movement has had a New Orleans presence since 1989, when volunteers lived and worked among the poor of the former St. Thomas housing development.

After an interruption caused by Katrina, the local Fourth World branch was revived in March 2006. Sandvik, a Minnesota native and a parishioner of St. Augustine, is one of three full-time volunteers who live and work out of the group’s New Orleans headquarters at the Seventh Ward Neighborhood Center on Annette Street.

Partly funded by CCHD

Although it is classified as a non-denominational, intergovernmental organization (IGO), the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) has given a small grant to the local Fourth World branch for the last five years. The grant funds the local celebration of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, a United Nations-recognized event held every Oct. 17 since 1987.

The observance underscores Father Wresinski’s contention that poverty is not inevitable, but an active violation of human rights, and that it is all people’s “solemn duty” to ensure that the rights of the poor are respected.

“(Fourth World) brings the poor out of their isolation and gives them a voice,” said Bob Mauss, a 20-year employee of Catholic Charities who brought the movement’s life-affirming work to the attention of the CCHD.

Isolation in any community tends to breed anger, frustration and even violence, Mauss said, “but if people have a voice – if they can be heard and if they can be seen – it transforms them.”

Retired priest lauds efforts

Msgr. Winus Roeten, 87, became acquainted with Fourth World in 1966 and has worked with local volunteers since the late 1980s. He worked as a full-time volunteer with Fourth World’s national team in Washington, D.C., after his 1994 retirement, and still meets regularly with the local branch. Msgr. Roeten notes that Fourth World’s work is so highly regarded, it has General Consultative Status with the United Nations.

“It is unlike any organization in the world that works with the poor,” Msgr. Roeten said. “(Fourth World volunteers) are called to do three things: be with the poor, listen to the poor and be at the service of the poor. Providing services is one thing, but being at the service of the poor means to walk with them.”

He recalled how one volunteer spent an entire year just helping a widowed mother get the services for which she was eligible.

“If not for Fourth World,” Msgr. Roeten said, “that poor woman would have never gotten to first base.”

The Treme Street Library welcomes volunteers and donations of books and other supplies. Fourth World also offers three-month internships to people in their 20s and 30s who are interested in a long-term commitment with the volunteer corps. Call Sandvik at 899-9950.

            Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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