By Joe Stumpe
Ben and Mary Grisamore are headed back to school again this fall to share their love of books with children whose homes sometimes contain none.
Members of the Rotary Club of Wichita’s Reading Is Fundamental program, the Wichita couple have been reading to students and giving away books for nearly 30 years.
“It’s an exciting time for them but it’s also alarming because so many homes don’t have books,” Ben, a Rotarian who’s retired from the contract office furniture business, said. “We hope that it will stimulate their interest in education.”
“I enjoy it so much because of the fact that the children enjoy it so much,” Mary added.
Started in Washington, D.C. in 1966, RIF came to Wichita two decades later under the leadership of then-Rotary president Dale Gordon. From one school, it’s expanded into 26 Title 1 schools, as those with high poverty rates are known. Last school year, 260 Rotarians, their friends, family and spouses read to children, and the club donated 22,272 books valued at $57,539. Over the years, the local club has given away nearly 700,000 books. Nationwide, RIF is the largest nonprofit children’s literacy program.
Ben reads in six schools and Mary in four – including Gardiner Elementary on Laura Street, where she walked to school as an 8-year-old.
“When I tell the children I used to go here, they’re always very interested in that fact, and the teachers, too. I’m 85 years old, so you do the math,” she said with a laugh.
The Grisamores met while attending Wichita State University. They have three sons, 15 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. They attend Music Theatre Wichita and stay active in the community in other ways, but nothing makes them feel they’re contributing more than RIF.
Mary admits she likes reading to the youngest students – those in pre-K through first grade – most of all. “The children like the ‘Big Red Dog’ books,” she said of a popular series starring a giant dog named Clifford.
And she still gets a kick out of the students’ reaction they’re handed a new book with their name inside.
“When we call their name and they come and get their book, they’re just amazed.”