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Books abound in Bethlehem

Maria Florevel Fusin-Wischusen with her son Kai Wischusen labeling one of the 18 shipping boxes mostly containing children's books.

As a young girl in the Philippines, Maria Florevel Fusin-Wischusen remembers visiting her elementary school’s tiny library where a set of encyclopedias were prominently displayed in a locked cabinet. When Fusin-Wischusen asked to read one of the encyclopedias, the librarian refused.

“She said that she didn’t want them to be torn,” remembers Fusin-Wischusen, program coordinator at the International Materials Institute for New Functionality in Glass at Lehigh University.

Despite its relatively high literacy rate, around 40 percent of the population in the Philippines lives below the poverty line. And for most families in Fusin-Wischusen’s hometown in the province of Iloilo, books were luxury items—objects to be viewed and admired, not necessarily read.

But Fusin-Wischusen’s mother, a “bookworm,” truly treasured books. Growing up, her children owned more books than toys, and other children from the neighborhood visited to page through the family’s encyclopedias and read their science books. Her mother dreamed of one day building a library.

Since moving to the East Coast in 2003, Fusin-Wischusen has periodically mailed books, a few at a time, to her mother.

On Jan. 25, 2008, Fusin-Wischusen sent more than a handful of books home—she shipped over 7,000 books to six elementary and two high schools in the Philippines.

“I wanted to share the gift of literacy to all of the kids in my hometown,” she says.

Her mother wept when Fusin-Wischusen told her that the donated books were being shipped. She assured her daughter that they be placed in the children’s hands.

“One of our biggest goals is to give back”

In March last year, Fusin-Wischusen wistfully wondered if she could organize a book drive as she sorted books for the Cops ’n’ Kids Literacy Program during Lehigh University’s Day of Caring. That day, she found a kindred spirit in the program’s president, Beverly Bradley.

The Cops ‘n’ Kids program stocks children’s books in police substations throughout the city and distributes books to local children free of charge. So far, the program, which is sponsored by Quota International of Bethlehem Charitable Trust, has distributed over 150,000 books.

Additionally, Bradley has created a reading room, which is open Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and is located on the fourth floor of the Northampton Community College Fowler Family Southside Center.

In the brightly-colored, whimsical reading room, children and their families can play with the puppets and toys available and select several books to take home.

Although Bradley, a retired high school teacher, focuses her attention on children in the Lehigh Valley, she decided to help Fusin-Wischusen with her book drive.

“Floe was so sincere,” Bradley says. “I don’t know if I would have embraced it, except that I had a sense that this was so personal.”

With Bradley’s help and the support of her husband Jeremy Wischusen ’04G, Fusin-Wischusen organized a book drive last spring. The drive, called Libro Libre Project, began April 23, 2007 and although it officially ended on May 31, donations continue to arrive. Fusin-Wischusen received boxes of books donated by members of the Bethlehem and Lehigh University communities, including the L.U. Bookstore.

Bradley allowed Fusin-Wischusen to store her ever-growing literary collection in the basement of the Southside Center, along with the books for the Cops ‘n’ Kids Program. Some of Fusin-Wischusen’s friends from Lehigh’s Library and Technology Services and the department of Materials Science and Engineering helped sort and transport.

In the Southside Center’s basement, classics, like John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, mingled with picture books, encyclopedias and even some college text books.

Men's lacrosse team pitches in

Lehigh men's lacrosse team members Morgan Haller (left) and Ricky Cornetta helped load the boxes that were shipped to the Philippines on January 25.

During the fall semester’s Day of Caring, volunteers from Lehigh University, including Lehigh’s men's lacrosse team, organized the books again.

When Kevin Cassese was appointed as the men’s head lacrosse coach, he contacted Bradley, looking for volunteer opportunities for his team. Bradley directed him to Fusin-Wischusen.

“It made sense. (The book drive) was in our own area, and we had the manpower to pitch in,” Cassese says. The team helped sort and pack books several times over the last semester.

Dan Honeywell ’09, the lacrosse team captain and a graphic and product design major, said that despite the competing demands of class and practice, the team makes time for volunteer activities.

“One of our biggest goals is to give back the opportunities that we have been given,” Honeywell says.

On Jan. 25, the lacrosse team helped Fusin-Wischusen and several other volunteers pack 18 shipping boxes full of books to be sent to the provinces of Iloilo and Guimaras.

“I am indeed blessed to be surrounded by kind and generous people here at Lehigh,” she says.

Bethlehem organizations, such as the Freedom High School swimming team, also helped sort the books, and a $1,700 grant from Rotary International covered shipping costs.

Fusin-Wischusen and her husband will donate a piece of land on their property in Guimaras to open a reading room, like the one in the Southside Center. They also plan to establish a non-profit organization and launch a Web site, www.Readcycle.org, this spring that will encourage donation of new and used books from schools, organizations and companies in the US. All the learning materials will then go to public schools, community centers and even homes not just in the Philippines but in other impoverished countries as well. In the future, the couple also hopes to raise funds to build reading rooms in the remote areas of the Philippines and other developing nations.

“Books are meant to be used and read, not locked in the cabinet,” Fusin-Wischusen says.

--Becky Straw

Photos provided by Emily Robson/The Morning Call Inc., Copyright 2008

Posted on Tuesday, February 12, 2008

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