In the 1970s a little girl contracted meningitis. After a long recovery she began to feel better, but something was clearly wrong. While much of her health returned, she was profoundly deaf. Advances in science brought this girl a hearing device called the Phonic Ear which helped her hear! But the Phonic Ear was far from the small, discreet cochlear implant many people today are familiar with. It was a heavy, bulky box strapped to her body, with wires that ended in earpieces inserted into the ear. And it was far from seamless in its operation. Consistency, volume and the ability to separate out background noise were still being refined. Thus armed, this little girl was sent into the wilds of public education.
This is El Deafo, a graphic memoir written by Cece Bell and it’s the springboard from which Chappaqua Reads -Chappaqua Includes was launched.
Chappaqua Reads – Chappaqua Includes is a joint partnership between the Chappaqua PTA and the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival. Its goal is a year-long conversation about empathy and inclusion which celebrates a love of reading and a desire to build connections through a community read. To date, Chappaqua Reads – Chappaqua Includes has given 2,000 copies of El Deafo to teachers, administrators, community members and families within the Chappaqua Central School District.
While it’s fun and exciting to get a free book, the question remains — what’s the point?
It is hard to read the news today and not feel sad. Division is everywhere. Community values feel like something out of Our Town, quaint and distant, like hand-churned butter. Solipsism and selfishness are on the rise. In the face of all this, the creators of Chappaqua Reads – Chappaqua Includes asked, what if you could turn the conversation. Use the platform of the Chappaqua PTA (with well over 80 percent of Chappaqua Central School District families in membership) and the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival (in its seventh year welcoming over 7,000 visitors and growing), to talk about community, empathy, inclusion and to foster a love reading at every age.
Empathy. Inclusion. Community.
Three simple words. Easy to look up in the dictionary. Easy to believe that they are part of a shared and agreed upon lexicon. Chappaqua Reads – Chappaqua Includes seeks to challenge that easy assumption. Like most things worthwhile, putting the concepts of empathy and inclusion in action and building community around them is hard work, full of second guesses and disagreements. It is only together, talking about these values, how they work in our home, our schools and in our community and, yes,about how they sometimes fail, that we can find a way forward to a greater community, that values empathy and is always expanding inclusion.
Stepping beyond the pages of El Deafo, Chappaqua Reads-Chappaqua Includes has teamed up with the Chappaqua Library, the Chappaqua Central School District, Scattered Books Bookstore and the Town of New Castle Recreation Department to create programming throughout the community to enhance and deepen that conversation. After a kick-off at the Chappaqua Rotary Club’s Community Day, programs have included: the Chappaqua Library and Town Rec Department’s StoryWalk® in Gedney Park; the Chappaqua PTA’s guest lecturer Michele Borba author of UnSelfie, who discussed the importance of raising empathetic children in a self-obsessed world, the PTA’s follow-up book discussion group, and a community- wide “Find Cece” scavenger hunt for middle and elementary school students hosted by Scattered Books Bookstore.
In December, the Chappaqua PTA will welcome Addy and Uno, a family musical about disability, The TSA Youth Ambassador program, where kids talk to kids about tics and tourette’s syndrome, a screening of Intelligent Lives hosted by Horace Greeley High School’s Ambassador’s Club, and classes to introduce kids to American Sign Language. The Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival will host a skype conversation with author Cece Bell. Across classrooms throughout the Chappaqua School District teachers at every level will discuss themes in El Deafo and highlight values of inclusion and empathy. In late winter or early spring the Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival will host a create your own graphic novel program. The Chappaqua Library will lead third and fourth grade students in book club discussion featuring El Deafo and lead younger kids in a “What’s your Superpower” arts and crafts activity where kids are asked to dig deep and find the superhero within themselves. Finally, in the spring, any books families would like to donate back to Chappaqua Reads – Chappaqua Includes will be shared with neighboring schools to inspire their own reading programs.
In the end, after all the celebrating, reading and fun, we hope that everyone comes away knowing that empathy is a superpower that can combat loneliness. It’s the strength to see beyond the surface and make a connection. While it is so easy to ruin someone’s day with a snide remark or a mean word, with empathy and sincerity, we each have the power to truly see other people, recognize their humanity and extend empathy, kindness and inclusion.
The StoryWalk® Project was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, VT and developed in collaboration with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. Storywalk® is a registered service mark owned by Ms. Ferguson.
News about Chappaqua Reads-Chappaqua Includes was provided as a courtesy to The Inside Press by the program’s founders and collaborators: The Chappaqua PTA and The Chappaqua Children’s Book Festival.